(Podium Publishing is offering a TWI-embossed frying pan giveaway for people pre-ordering Book 3 on Audible! Sign up for the competition here!)
(Also, I am taking my break early due to getting the vaccine shot and not wanting to be under-the-weather while writing. I will be back on April 24th!)
A little girl lifted a stick in the grassy playing area outside of an old, weathered keep and shouted at the group of children armed with buckets, sticks, and other toys, some even carved to look like the real thing.
The woman stared as a silvery arm lifted an actual sword, the edge gleaming with magic and enchantments. Below the hill, the first wave of close-combat adventurers tensed. She looked around, at friends and people she had met today, armed with weapons and armor, each piece of which had seen battle, drawn blood and blocked killing strikes.
It was a strange thing to realize a dream. Even a child’s dream. Both child and woman inhaled. Gold-blonde hair shone in the sunlight. The setting sun had just passed midday. Her heart was beating too fast.
A [Marksman] grimly set an arrow to a bow behind her. A half-Giant waited, leaning on his staff, armor gleaming on his shoulders.
In her memory, Yvlon Byres waved her stick and shouted.
“Charge! For the glory of House Byres!”
The adult looked ahead and wondered if she would die. How high would the toll be? Nevertheless, she looked at her companions. The half-Elf and young man standing together, faces shining in the light of the magical circle one had drawn.
The Antinium looking up at her, waiting. Calm. Trusting.
The first wave of adventurers began to march forwards. A few began to run, but the rest advanced at a trot. Faster. Towards the village in the distance.
At first, nothing lurked in the empty streets. The windows were shuttered; closed where they were not broken. Then, the first silhouette appeared.
Glowing eyes. The putrid smell of rotten flesh. A Zombie lurched forwards. One, then a dozen.
Then a hundred. Then they filled the streets.
Yvlon Byres was striding down the small incline. She began to run, to join the front. Adventurers passed next to her. A Selphid grinned as she hefted the flail, wearing a Raskghar’s body. A Minotaur nodded at her and she saw a younger woman, saluting him with her sword—
The adventurers closed as the first volley of arrows and spells hit the undead. Then, they shouted, they screamed and howled challenges, oaths to defy death. Louder than the girl could have ever imagined, with a sincerity that made Yvlon’s skin chill. She lifted the sword as a burning skull swung towards her.
The [Armsmistress] swung her sword and beheaded the undead. She ran into the first streets of the Village of the Dead. She turned as the first undead vanished before the charge and raised the speaking stone to her lips as she readied her sword, already cursing.
“Silver and steel—Ceria, Pisces, team leaders, get ready for a fight! There are thousands!”
She lifted her sword and plunged forwards into a sea of glowing eyes and rotting limbs.
They were a day later than planned. It looked like a day and a half, to judge by the uneven concert of wagons, horses, and even a moving palanquin assembling by nightfall.
“We’ll never get it organized before midday.”
Ceria groaned, pulling at her hair as she saw the arrivals crowding up, looking for places to settle, some greeting each other by name or introducing themselves—in the way of the others, by the by. Shouts, jovial greetings, and the scream of someone getting their foot run over filled the air about three miles away from the Village of the Dead.
Pisces winced at the high-pitched scream, but kept honing the edge of his rapier with a whetstone. He blew, inspected the edge, and sighed.
“One supposes we might have organized this a bit better. However, the response is gratifying.”
And unexpected. Ceria bit her lip. She counted at least two hundred adventurers, and more were still coming in. She had—hoped—for fifty. That would have been monumental, for what might well be a suicide-attack.
This was a circus. It was getting worse by the moment. The two Horns watched from their elevated campsite—right until someone shouted their names.
“Ceria! Pisces! Get down here and help out!”
“Some days it occurs to me she’s the real leader, you know.”
Pisces rose with a sigh. Ceria nudged him with an elbow.
“What about me?”
“You would be the cover to the true leader. A masterful plan. Lure in the enemy or deceive hostile clients with your…nature. Masterfully conceived, although I admit this was an accident.”
Ceria raised her foot, and decided that they didn’t need two broken bones before the battle, so she did not kick Pisces down the hill. His chatter was just a sign of nerves, anyways. If he got sincere—then she knew they were in trouble.
“There you two are. Come help me sort this out. Did someone actually just shatter their foot?”
Yvlon was looking around, as agitated as Ceria. An Antinium waved three arms behind her.
“I will inquire, Yvlon!”
“No, wait, Ks—”
Too late, the [Skirmisher] leapt into the air, as light as a feather, impossibly high for someone without Skills, magic, or wings, heading towards the screamer. Heads turned and Ceria heard a chorus of oaths or gasps as people saw the only Antinium adventurer in existence.
The half-Elf swore mildly. It didn’t occur to Ksmvr that he might make the problem worse by offering a friendly hand.
Yvlon checked Ceria with one hand. Since it was Yvlon, and her arms were the Silversteel metal, it was like being stopped by an iron railing. Ceria went oof.
“You find the other team leaders and organize this mess. I’ll get Ksmvr.”
Protective of her friend as ever, Yvlon jogged towards the now audibly louder shouting. Ceria looked after her.
“Wait, but you’re good at that! Wait—”
“The true team leader departs. Alas.”
Pisces looked at Ceria. She rounded with a glare on him and the temperature dropped several degrees. He shivered and she glowered.
“Gah! I can’t even control my aura! How am I supposed to herd adventurers? It’s worse than cats!”
Yvlon and Ceria both bore new effects of their class, and the inadvertent abilities and side-effects weren’t under control yet. Pisces, by contrast, had less noticeable changes, although he demonstrated one now, easily flicking two fingers and warming the air around him.
Stronger magical powers and a plethora of new spells. Ceria suspected he’d gained some kind of [Student]’s Skill or how else would he have practically doubled his library of spells? Even Ksmvr was more grasshopper than Antinium these days.
Her musing was interrupted by a familiar voice.
“Well, you might have organized more than shouting, ‘come here and let’s raid a dungeon’. That’s how old adventurers used to do it, I’ll grant you, but a good raid is generally put together. Dead gods, I heard Liscor’s crypt raid was better than this. Fingers stitched it doesn’t go that way, huh?”
Ceria whirled. There was only one person who could fit Pisces-level snark into a greeting.
“Revi! Typhenous, Halrac, and…Briganda!”
She turned and threw her arms around the Stitch-Girl, who staggered slightly, but grinned despite her words. She recalled the last, newest member too as she hugged Revi.
“Ceria! Ah, you’re cold! It’s like being hugged by a Frost Golem—stop, enough! Pisces, was that Yvlon and Ksmvr I saw?”
She pointed and Ceria nodded. She turned, hugged the old man who was stroking his beard and giving Pisces a smiling nod of greeting, and was seized by the tall woman with the shield.
“You remember! Good to see you again, Ceria! Cade says hi—or he would if he was older. Where’s the arrogant, sniffing [Necromancer]? There he is.”
The [Shield Maiden] slapped Pisces on the shoulder, not put off by him. The only person who didn’t hug or exchange physicalities was Halrac. The [Marksman] and [Veteran Scout] held out a hand, which Ceria shook.
“Halrac. You came.”
He shrugged, as if it were nothing. The look he gave towards the adventurers, and the village in the distance, belied the action.
“We promised we would. So that’s the Village? What are the odds it has something to cure Erin?”
“High. It’s all but guaranteed according to Pisces’ source. If it’s not the cure—it can be bartered into one.”
The [Veteran Scout]’s eyes were grey and green, and more of grey than anything else. Ceria had forgotten how intense his stare could be when he was angry or serious. He swung his gaze towards Pisces.
“How likely is it that the bartered cure works?”
“I would stake my life on it. This is not a bet, Captain Everam.”
Pisces and Halrac regarded each other for a second. They had never been friendly, but Halrac nodded briefly.
The half-Elf smiled, but she didn’t have time to do more than turn from Halrac when another arm grabbed her.
“Ceria! It’s a mess out there! Reminds me of half the raids I’ve been to on Baleros! Look at you—we just parted and we’re back together! Plus—we’re cold-skin buddies!”
Jelaqua swung Ceria around and then put her down. Ceria stared up at the Raskghar, grinning in a jaunty, friendly way, and the familiar voice, if not tones, of Jelaqua Ivirith.
“Jelaqua, you made it! And you brought friends!”
“Of course we did. Anyone got a plan for sorting them out, or do we let them do it themselves? Ah, they’re big adventurers, they’ll figure it out. Seborn, Moore, Ulinde! I found the Horns! Where’s Pisces?”
She grabbed the [Necromancer] and rubbed his hair while putting him into a headlock, despite his fervent objections. Ceria was beaming as she saw a shadow slip past a knot of adventurers.
“This is a mess. Ceria, ah—Griffon Hunt beat us. Halrac, let’s get our camp next to the Horns’ before it gets taken.”
The [Veteran Scout] seemed just as willing to leave the adventurers in chaos to their own devices. Jelaqua was not.
“No, we have to have order. Ceria’s in charge—we’ll grab some other team leaders and figure this out.”
“Wait, I’m in charge? We’re just—”
Jelaqua and Halrac looked at Ceria.
“You called the raid, you’re in charge. Unless you delegate. Where’s—there’s Moore and Ulinde.”
Again, the two Horns and other adventurers turned, a smile on Ceria and Pisces’ faces. However, it faded as they saw the cluster of adventurers break apart and a huge figure stride past them.
Moore was taller than the Raskghar, taller than even the trio of horned bull-people. The gentle giant Ceria remembered though…
He strode through the crowd and they moved out of the way or had their feet stomped. Behind him trailed Ulinde, towing a trio of horses. Jelaqua glanced at Ceria.
She needed to say no more. Ceria did not run to hug or shake Moore’s hand. She looked up as the [Green Mage] stopped.
“When are we attacking?”
He looked like he hadn’t slept well. He looked like he hadn’t existed well. Not since…
It hit Ceria again what they were doing. What had happened. It had been over a month now. She’d counted the days.
Over one month since Erin died. Didn’t die. Got shot—one month with no cure. Well, today there would be one. They were going to raid one of the most infamous death zones in all of Izril. Either get something they could trade for Erin’s recovery…or die trying.
Memory flickered in her mind to a similar time. Yet this was not for glory or treasure alone. They had lost a lot, gained a lot since then.
There was no [Innkeeper] either.
The three teams caught the mood and sobered. The Horns, Griffon Hunt, and the Halfseekers looked at each other.
“No Silver Swords? We’ve been travelling together, but I didn’t get word they were coming and I’d have expected to hear Falene and Dawil fighting by now. This is Ulinde, by the way. Which…you know.”
Jelaqua gestured to the last arrival.
The Selphid [Spellslinger] looked uneasily at the two, but Ceria and Pisces just gave her cool nods, recalling the first time they’d met. Pisces answered for Ceria.
“They’re not coming. They were too far and had a prior engagement.”
“Shame. Nothing like a [Knight] to hide behind.”
Seborn muttered. Typhenous and Revi nodded. Jelaqua exhaled.
“That’s all the teams from Liscor, then. Except for one. We got the Flamewardens. Moore [Messaged] you, right, Ceria?”
“Yep. How did you get them?”
“Wall Lord Ilvriss. Don’t gawk; it’s a long story. We’ve got other teams like the Lifwail Blades, Gemhammer, the Pride of Kelia, and uh…Vuliel Drae. Among others—”
At the last name, Pisces and Ceria, who had been smiling more and more, frowned.
“Couldn’t you have left them behind? How many Silver-ranks are there? I asked for Gold, Jelaqua. We can’t protect them and if it turns bad—”
The Selphid raised her paws defensively. The Raskghar body looked down at Ceria, seriously.
“I know, I know. Look at it this way, though, Ceria. There’s strength in numbers. A hundred Silver-ranks with bows is better than twenty Gold-ranks with swords…better than ten Gold—better than five Gold-ranks with swords! I would have turned them down, but once I realized how many were coming, I decided it was for the best.”
The adventurers looked around. It was true. The cluster of adventurers had converged on the spot almost at the same time.
Oh, two dozen teams had arrived early, and met with the Horns, somewhat dubiously until the numbers swelled. In fact, three teams had left—and two had come back, shamefaced, once they realized this raid had a lot of teams coming.
A huge caravan had arrived from Invrisil, however. Thanks to her friends. Yet it seemed like there were other arrivals that were complicating the influx. Jelaqua clearly had no idea who some of the teams in the traffic jam were.
“Let’s go sort this out. Where’s Yvlon?”
She grabbed Ceria and Halrac and began towing them into the chaos. However, as they were about to start pushing in, someone stood up and…clapped their hands.
Ceria heard the sound over the arguing, the shouting, the broken-foot screamer, and the braying of animals. Also, to call it ‘clapping’ was also a disservice to the sound. It rang, it echoed. It was loud and had a sound beyond mere auditory power.
That was what it sounded like. The adventurers turned, half with hands to their ears. What they saw was a haughty expression. The young man lounging on the palanquin borne by six men or women looked around.
“I am [Prince] Zenol of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, by my royal name and accomplishments, Gold-rank Captain of Nerrhavia’s Champions Abroad. I demand order! Who is in charge here?”
He looked around and his gaze found Ceria’s almost at once. She blinked up at him. The [Prince] inclined his head, which surprised her and Pisces, who was already scowling. He snapped his fingers.
“If we are going to raid this dungeon, let it be done properly! Team captains, and the leader of the Horns of Hammerad, shall we convene? There, I believe.”
He gestured at an open spot higher up, and the palanquin spun, neatly moving past the adventurers. Ceria glanced at Pisces.
“Looks like we’ve got some characters already. Let’s go?”
The [Necromancer] nodded as individuals or teams began sending their leaders forwards. Ceria looked around, breathing faster, now. All of them and she was in charge. She felt the pressure rising.
Then—she saw the pair of Named-rank adventurers walking out of the crowd. That was when Ceria knew they had a chance.
Named-rank Teams were not Named-rank adventurers. However, both had to be exceptional, beyond exceptional to acquire either title.
Ceria knew both, of course. One in particular. Who had not heard of Elia Arcsinger? It was interesting, then, that Arcsinger’s Bows was not a Named-rank team. However, she had never lost her designation since she had slain the Goblin King.
The second adventurer she had never met, but heard of. Eldertuin the Fortress, whose old team had contained two adventurers who later became Named-rank. The very same man who’d taken on six Trolls during a bloody battle at the same time and survived!
Even [Prince] Zenol bowed to them, although he did not leave the palanquin. The other team-captains looked just as impressed. Then they turned to Ceria and her mouth went dry.
As Pisces had said though, that was why Yvlon was there.
“Captains, adventurers—Adventurer Arcsinger and Terland, welcome. We apologize for the disorganization. Most of you came in at the same time. Let’s get everyone settled, then we can discuss the plan of attack.”
Everyone nodded. Ceria saw that Elia was accompanied by three of her team; most had only come representing their entire team or themselves. Even so, it was a huge group on the hilltop.
“Where are we camping?”
“Just line up your camps. It’s not hard. Individuals take that section…we’ll space ‘em out and break the gridlock. I’ll grab the teams nearest the front.”
Jelaqua pointed impatiently, gesturing around the already-established encampment. However, half a dozen adventurers protested instantly.
“Hold up, I have alchemical supplies I need to keep away from fire at all costs.”
“So? Keep away from fire. I’m allergic to dogs. At least three teams have ‘em, so I need to get upwind of wherever they’re going.”
“Hah! Have you seen adventurers when they drink? A stray [Spark] spell some idiot casts gets near me and there won’t be a raid!”
Yet another Captain raised a hand and spoke, shamefaced. Ceria was raising her hands helplessly when she spoke.
“Look—two of my people are sick. It…might be just an infection, but it could be uh, Yellow Rivers. We didn’t see it coming in—”
Yvlon’s head swung around. Every other adventurer recoiled instantly.
“Are you insane? You ‘think’ it’s Yellow Rivers? What possessed you to come here?”
“We’re not sure! But if there’s a [Healer]—”
“Excuse me, I snore loudly. So maybe I should camp away from everyone else? I know what you’re thinking already, but trust me, it’s loud—”
The mere act of getting teams to settle down and unpack was already beyond Ceria’s expertise. Even Yvlon looked harassed.
“Which team is sick? Okay—get yours out of the way, now. As for anyone with allergies or complaints, line up and we’ll deal with you after—”
Again, Ceria heard the clap of Prince Zenol’s hands. All the adventurers winced and some swore at him. However, the haughty man—no, Ceria realized with a start, Stitch-man—just pointed one elegant, supple hand of skin made from silk.
“I believe that adventurer is the one we need, Captain Springwalker?”
He looked at her. Ceria blinked at him, and then turned. She spotted the person he was looking at. She was…a Garuda?
Yes! No. Ceria was instantly confused because the description was right, a feathered, avian, female adventurer—but the details were wrong.
Head shape, the length of her talon-claws, even her plumage! She wasn’t a Garuda at all. The Bird Beastkin bowed, extending a wing-arm with the feathers pointed downwards, executing the bow like a bird pecking seed.
“Excuse me. If there’s no [Strategist] leading this raid, I volunteer my abilities. Strategist Soew, at your service.”
She tilted her head. Unnaturally far right. Everyone shuddered and Ceria saw the beady eyes, so unlike a Garuda’s more Human-like ones, regard her. A curved, smaller beak, pale feathers…oh yes.
The Owl Beastkin adventurer looked at Ceria for a nod, and then lifted a wing.
“Every adventurer team or individual with complications, please raise your hand. Good. You may lower them. Gold-rank team Captains, please raise your hand, yourselves included, please, Captain Ceria. Good. Teams with experience in repelling ambushes, fast-mobilization capabilities, or trap-specialties, raise your hands. Good…[Mages], or those with them in your team, raise your hands. Good.”
She made them lower their hands each time, but it was done in seconds. Ceria didn’t see the point, but she started as Soew’s head turned all the way around like she was a Selphid or Dullahan. The Owl just blinked, counting hands, and then asked the next question.
She began writing on the clipboard she carried.
“Good. I believe I know the organization of teams. I will have a layout in five minutes.”
Her claw-hand darted across the clipboard with amazing speed, holding a quill delicately. Ceria stared. Someone else murmured incredulously.
“That fast? Why the hell do we need to lay out the camp?”
“Have my Izrilian counterparts never partied with a [Strategist], before? They are quite common on Baleros, and Chandrar of course learns effective strategies.”
Zenol spoke from his elevated position at the questioner. His tone managed to be sneering and lecturing at the same time.
“Strategist Soew remembers the data she collected in an instant if she is a half-decent [Strategist]. She will space the camp out to take care of individual issues—and keep the most battle-ready teams to the edges, as well as [Mages] far enough away that their magic-casting does not interfere with each other.”
As Soew worked, Ceria saw two thirds of those present scowling at Zenol—aside from two more Stitchfolk, who looked awed by his presence. He was not making a good first-impression.
Or rather, he was making a Pisces-type impression, which was probably why Ceria wasn’t actually taking as much offense as most of the others.
It could well be said that Yvlon was exactly the type of person Pisces-attitudes nettled most, so her scowl was just as pronounced as she opened her mouth. Ceria broke in, looking directly at the [Prince].
“Thank you, Captain Zenol. You’ve been most helpful in getting us organized. I can see there are a lot of teams here, and I thank you all for coming. However, we’ll have to get organized quick for the raid. Thus, I’ll ask Soew, Named Adventurers Eldertuin, Elia, and a few of the leaders I know to make initial plans, and then call a larger meeting to brief everyone. So—don’t clap your hands any more. My ears hurt.”
She pointed at Zenol, and the [Prince] raised his eyebrows. Several people laughed, but he nodded.
“As you wish. If you would care to avail yourself of my expertise?”
Ceria looked at him. That was another Pisces-type line. If she said yes, half the other team-captains would want to put forwards their experience. If she said no?
“We’ll reach out to all experts. After I consult with the others.”
He nodded slowly, not looking exactly pleased, but gestured and moved his palanquin back down the rise. Ceria was breathing hard, but to her surprise, Jelaqua clapped her on the shoulder as the other captains went to see where Soew wanted them and headed to shout at their teams.
“Nice job. No wonder you’re the Captain.”
Yvlon was nodding too, much calmer. Ceria smiled, pleased by the compliment. There now. That was something she could do better than Yvlon! After all, she’d known Pisces far longer.
The secret was to ignore the haughty sniffing and see if he was being actually helpful, or just in the mood to be a prat. If reasoned speech didn’t get [Prince] Zenol to be helpful, Ceria’s next instinct was to drop-kick him out of the palanquin. She turned to the few adventurers left. Friends and Named-rank adventurers—and the [Strategist]. Ceria smiled.
“Okay. Hi, I’m Ceria. Should we get started?”
Rags sat in The Wandering Inn, inspecting it, seeing how it had changed.
…Well. It was nothing like the inn she remembered. She’d heard the other one had been exploded. The skeleton—Toren. That made sense to Rags. It had always been suspicious.
So much changed, from floorboards to the three floors, the tower, the magic door, the occupants, and the trapped hallway.
However, the uproar was familiar. Some things never changed, and that was reassuring.
Rags, who had no last name, and who had been given her name here, was just one extraordinary visitor that day. Those were just the visitors, too.
The inn had long had special guests.
The owner of the Heartflame Breastplate, for instance, who was dragging the scrying mirror to a better place to watch from, cursing.
“Is it not on the news? Someone has to—where’s Drassi? Is she on air? It has to be on the news!”
“What’s happening? Are the Horns going to get Erin’s cure?”
Joseph crashed down the stairs. The [World-Renowned Coach], arguably one of the most well-known faces in the world. He jogged past Rags, then jogged backwards.
The young man gazed at Rags, clearly certain that she wasn’t one of the two Goblins he was familiar with in the inn. She was still standing in the common room, taking it in. At last, she decided she had to say something.
Joseph waved. He walked past her, glancing over his shoulder twice. Rags’ matter-of-fact greeting made it hard to cause a fuss, though.
Calescent was rubbing his hands together, sniffing the air, although it seemed like a half-Elf was doing it rather than the Goblin [Chef]. They were both somewhat portly, Calescent being of the opinion that a [Chef] got to eat the food they cooked before the people they served, but as bodyguards went, he barely lagged behind Redscar or Snapjaw.
Guests new and old. One of them peered down at the Goblin, blinking. There was no way. Yet he was certain it was the same one from the High Passes. The gifted amateur! A Goblin Chieftain, in the inn!
Niers Astoragon was fuming—or had been from yesterday’s events. It had seemed like a tricky day—and it looked more and more tricky, but interesting, rather than just difficult. He glanced around as a running pair of paws heralded two more arrivals via the [Garden of Sanctuary].
Rags whirled as bright sunlight spilled into the room. Calescent had the knife out again—no one else even noticed. Mrsha bounded out the door, spotted Rags, and slowed. She had heard Selys shouting about the Horns, but the appearance of—
Mrsha’s first reaction was to think it was the little Goblin [Cook]! However, this Goblin was noticeably taller, her skin was green, not grey, and she had armor and stuff! Mrsha froze.
Goblin in her inn? A new one? She had no idea what the half-Elf—waitasecond, he smelled like a Goblin too! And spices! She backed up as someone else ran after her.
“What Horns? Is it dessert? Village of the Dead? That is in the north. Stupid Mrsha-child, explain—”
Ulvama froze in the entrance of the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Rags’ brows rose higher. She glanced at the little Gnoll girl—yes, Badarrow had mentioned her. Then at Ulvama.
The [Shaman] screeched in surprise. Rags nodded.
“Me. Hello, Ulvama. You—are Mrsha.”
She pointed and the little Gnoll recoiled. Selys was looking at Rags again.
“She’s here. She’s—Ishkr? Kevin? No—none of you know who she is, do you?”
Kevin, Ishkr, both of whom were moving the scrying mirror, realized Rags’ presence and hesitated, shaking their heads. Rags nodded to herself. She nudged Calescent.
“Take off your ring, Calescent.”
He did. The Goblin [Chef] appeared and Mrsha recoiled, jaw open, with everyone else. Rags saw Ulvama’s jaw drop, although she had sensed the illusion. The [Chieftain] was starting to enjoy herself.
—Then she glanced sideways. Niers’ hair rose. He’d been waving at Mrsha of course, but she hadn’t looked up once. She was avoiding him, the dratted girl.
Rags spun, and the giant black crossbow rose in both hands, appearing from her bag of holding like a [Magician]’s trick. The tip of the bolt glowed, and her hands sparked with fire. Calescent had a kitchen knife with red dust in his other hand, held up to his lips to blow across the room. Both Goblins had turned to look sideways.
“’Scuse me, Miss Selys. We apologize for this, as it were, but we noticed one of the visitors had opened the side-door. Little scamps might have left it ajar; is she alright to come in?”
Crimshaw leaned on the door frame of one of the hallways adjoining the trapped entranceway. He didn’t quite touch the blackjack at his side. Nor was Rags aiming at him, but the tip of two smaller crossbows pointing at her from the second open door’s crack.
“It—she’s fine! She’s fine! No one shoot!”
Selys had frozen upon seeing the three Brothers. They relaxed, and Crimshaw took his hand away from the blackjack. He tipped his hat to Selys and then Rags and Calescent.
“Good to know, Miss. Thought it might be, but we wanted to be sure.”
They were good. Rags had barely noticed after Niers, and had the three Brothers really wanted to attack—
Ambush specialists. Niers nodded to himself. He still didn’t know quite where the two Gentlemen Callers were or why they’d abandoned their posts, but the Brothers were doing good work. In fact, they’d done more than he had asked even yesterday…honorable men. He waited, still trying to make sense of this.
As for Rags, she put the crossbow down and gestured at Calescent to do the same. He was clearly uneasy at anyone sneaking up on him, but obeyed.
The Goblin [Great Chieftain] was purely approving, however.
“Better security, good. I always thought it was bad here. I could have destroyed the inn with eight Goblins.”
Her perfect intonation and speech made Selys start again.
“You can talk!”
“I could always talk. Ulvama, stop staring. Where is…Numbtongue?”
The [Shaman] made a choked sound. Rags looked at the faces, and then strode over to a table. She sat down and pointedly looked around.
“I would like a Blue Fruit juice cup, and some spaghetti, please. Also, a chessboard.”
She had waited a long time to say that. Shame, shame. She sat as the inn began to buzz twice. Calescent sat down next to her as Ishkr rushed into the kitchen.
Mrsha gazed at Rags, awed by the fascinating Goblin. She spoke better than Ulvama, as well as Numbtongue! She was so small, too! So amazing! She had a huge crossbow! She knew Selys? Did she know…know Erin? Was she coming to stay at the inn?
So many questions. Mrsha would have loved to inspect the two and find out more, and she was about to when something hit her on the head.
A tiny pebble. She glanced up, and a figure motioned. Mrsha…hesitated. The Fraerling pointed to the open door to the [Garden of Sanctuary] where they could talk and a bee buzzed down, carrying him. He gestured as only Mrsha saw him clinging to Apista’s back.
Curiously, Mrsha did not race after Niers. She looked at Rags, then after the Titan, and padded slowly into the garden. She met Niers around the pond and Fortress Beaver’s dam.
“Hey. That Goblin—you know her? What is this raid on the Village of the Dead? Has someone gone mad?”
Niers was sitting in the lee of some branches, looking at Mrsha urgently. The Titan, Apista perching on the twigs above…
Mrsha stopped eight paces away from him. The [Strategist] looked at her, impatiently, then he noticed Mrsha had stopped. He caught himself, smiled, beckoned.
“Come on, Miss Mrsha. We have to work together, right? I need your help. Come on.”
He gestured, and she took a few more steps forwards, but halted again. Mrsha smiled uncertainly.
She drew no closer. Niers closed his eyes, and exhaled. Damn it.
In the inn, Selys was staring at the scrying mirror, but there was no Drassi, only Noass and Sir Relz. Kevin had gone running to find her with Joseph, yet for now, it was just…news.
“We’ll be bringing you coverage of Ailendamus’ march to the sea—or rather, through Pheislant! Their armies are trying to encircle the Dawn Concordat. But first—obituaries. [Marshal] Vexu’de of the Trick Temple company has passed away of old age at 54, due to complications with the Yellow Rivers disease, along with [Princess] Itere, aged 72, of natural causes. They will be missed. It always struck me as odd, Noass, that a [Princess] remained one into their later years.”
“Titles, Sir Relz. Age does not change the dignity of one’s station one whit. Only circumstance. The only other obituary sent in today—and we are encouraging all those individuals of a certain level or note to be reported, although we cannot report every passing, sadly—is a Master Merxel of Invrisil, a well-known [Spymaster], who was found dead in his home this morning. The Watch is investigating…”
Mrsha looked at Niers and the Titan’s smile never wavered. She padded back a few more steps.
Mrsha trotted past Joseph into Invrisil. It was easy. Mrsha the Daring knew all the ways to get to Invrisil. She could use the door—but why bother when Liska was responsible for it?
She didn’t care if Mrsha went to visit the Wailant farm, or Celum, or…anywhere. She was cool like that. Ishkr, now, he was tricky. He kept tabs on Mrsha, but he had discovered that Mrsha could never be contained.
Not with the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Lock her in a room and she’d be out before you turned the key. In some ways, Erin’s great protection for Mrsha was also the biggest impediment to keeping her safe. Ishkr usually managed it with threats and promises of cutting Mrsha’s dessert privileges, which were already in arrears.
However, Mrsha risked his wrath this time because she had a higher calling! The Titan was riding on her head! He needed her help, and Mrsha the Mercenary was sure she’d be richly rewarded when he got to Baleros. Maybe…he’d even help with Erin?
He’d gone into Erin’s room and sat at the big, magical chess board this morning. Niers played blankly with the chess pieces, moving each around bodily, as they were nearly his size.
“I…sent it to her. If I can help, I will. I need your help, though. It might be dangerous, but I swear on my company, I will keep you out of trouble if I can. Would you help me?”
What was Mrsha the Brave to say to that but ‘yes’? Erin would have!
To her disappointment, though, all Niers wanted her to do was go to some stinky house and let him do some investigating. He even knew the address, which was no fun.
However, it was hilarious to walk around Invrisil and realize no one knew the Titan of Baleros was on her head! Mrsha swaggered about on two legs, making an effort to show off for Niers.
He was so small, and he was a [Strategist] so his stealth-Skills plus Mrsha made it so no one would see him.
“Not even a top-class [Rogue] can easily spot me—I’ve hidden on countless battlefields. I learned it from my [Rogue] friend, actually. Three-Color Stalker?”
Mrsha was agog, of course, and Niers had told her some stories last night. She proudly walked him to his destination, mind racing with what might happen. What adventure would Mrsha the Great and Terrible get into this time?
Nothing, as far as Niers was concerned. He watched, clinging to the somewhat bumpy ride despite Mrsha’s best efforts, as she carried him through Invrisil. For dangers to her, from carts or pedestrians, to actual [Thugs], [Kidnappers], and all the unsavory things that might befall a child in a big city.
He had no intention of letting a child get hurt. Nor was he putting her in danger. Niers would easily cop to the fact that he’d gotten her on his side by telling her some glory-stories of him as an adventurer and Foliana, but that was necessary.
In truth, he’d have been happy to ride Apista around, but an Ashfire Bee was even more obvious than a white Gnoll. If she wasn’t killed by some [Bug Exterminator] in the first half-hour…
Well, his plan was simple. No more games. Niers had elected for the fastest route to helping himself, Erin Solstice, and his company. He’d asked Mrsha to ferry him to Master Merxel’s. If the [Spymaster] hadn’t lost his step, he’d know where Niers’ gear was—or the Gold-rank team that stole it. At the very least, he could get Niers in touch with his company.
Alas, it was not to be. One look at Master Merxel’s house and Niers smelled trouble.
He couldn’t have said why it was. It was not some advanced [Dangersense], an intuiting of political trouble or betrayal—Niers had never wanted and thus never gotten such Skills, trusting to his instincts. He could have used one for Peclir Im, of course, but his intuition was still good.
It was something in how the bodyguards outside of Master Merxel’s house stood, perhaps. A bit too attentively compared to the last time Niers had been there. The sign saying ‘not accepting visitors’ on the door?
Let’s see. If I thought Merxel was on my side, I might be encouraged by this. Yet if he was, I’d expect him not to show a sign I was missing. This almost seems like he’s waiting for me to show up.
He could just be paranoid for his own safety, I suppose. Perorn must have raised hell.
Nevertheless, Niers’ paranoia did not get where it was by having him walk into possible traps. Bad for your health, that. So he leaned down and whispered into Mrsha’s ear, knowing how good her hearing was.
“Mrsha? Listen. It looks like Master Merxel might be…compromised. So I need you to help me.”
She nodded eagerly, and then caught herself. Niers sighed again, but he didn’t put her in trouble. Rather, he made use of her natural abilities.
“Walk past his house. Walk! Listen for anything inside…I’ll slip off and go through a window. You just have to wait—um, at that café down the street, okay? Do you have gold?”
Mrsha patted her money pouch, looking indignant. Did she have money? She was excited, but Niers knew it was safe.
She wasn’t going to hear a thing. No [Spymaster] wouldn’t ward their home. Niers would be the one crawling through the vents, no doubt having to fight the [Spymaster]’s wards. Damn, damn—well, he had some tools.
His enchanted sword, the lifeblood of his fighting capabilities right now, his torn armor—and a crossbow.
He’d made a miniature one out of scraps Mrsha had brought him. It had all the power of a Fraerling-sized crossbow, unfortunately, but it could launch a toothpick through your eye. Niers had met many creatures and people over his career, and a lot of them couldn’t deal with that easily.
Besides that, he had a climbing grapple, and about ten feet of very fine twine, all cumbersomely strapped to his back. His damned bag of holding was lost, and that was one of the things he needed. Plus his Signim. If he had both, he could stand in Invrisil and shout for Perorn to pick him up. Well…maybe not that, but if he had his gear, his chances of survival were ten times higher.
The plan was good. Mrsha was sauntering past the two bodyguards in front of Master Merxel’s house, casual as could be, and Niers had left her back and was creeping across the street by the gutters when the door opened and Master Merxel appeared.
“Ah—excuse me? You two—excuse me, little girl?”
Niers’ heart sank. Master Merxel smiled as Mrsha froze, every trace of guilt on her, and turned. His two bodyguards—and two more from within the house had already slid past her, though. The [Spymaster] adjusted his spectacles and frowned at her.
“Don’t be worried! Mrsha, is it? From—The Wandering Inn? Hello! I am Master Merxel. [Spymaster].”
He beamed. Mrsha stared up at him, glancing at the huge, subtly armored men. Niers cursed as he crouched around the corner of Merxel’s house. What the hell was the [Spymaster] doing?
He was searching for Niers! The spectacles had to be vision-amplifying and he was squinting at Mrsha. She had an anti-appraisal ring, but Merxel had stopped her on…what, a hunch?
“I don’t suppose you’d like to come in? I have sweets! I’d just like to talk to you. I know this is very surprising, but have you met a…little man? Did someone ask you to come by this place, by any chance?”
Mrsha backed up, shaking her head instantly. Merxel was looking at her. Niers stared—then slapped his forehead.
You idiot, Niers Astoragon!
In that moment he realized two things. Merxel was not on his side, or if he was, he was hedging his bets. Second? He was under the assumption Niers was going to come calling and he’d been waiting.
Why had he singled Mrsha out? Firstly—Niers suspected anyone slowing in front of Merxel’s home or giving it more than two looks got this treatment. This though, was Niers’ fault.
Mrsha? A white Gnoll from The Wandering Inn, where Merxel knew Niers was bound? Idiot, idiot, idiot! The [Spymaster] wasn’t a fool!
Worse, he seemed to be sure Niers was here, so he turned to Mrsha.
“Come in, Miss. You are not going to be hurt. I just need to speak to Lord Astoragon. If you can hear me, sir? I’d just like to talk.”
I’ll feed you your eyeballs on toothpicks if you harm her, Merxel. Niers swore silently, but Merxel was gesturing and his bodyguards were going to grab Mrsha! Then, it was a hostage situation where—
Mrsha was looking around to run, but one of the [Bodyguards] was too fast. She was grabbing for a wand, baring her teeth to bite, when someone coughed.
“Pardon me, sir. But it seems to me that if the young miss doesn’t want to go with you, it would be ungentlemanly to insist. Insofar as my thinking goes, a fellow asking a child to go eat snacks in his home was already ungentlemanly, and the rest was ‘icing on the cake’, to use a new expression, as it were.”
Master Merxel and the four [Bodyguards] stopped. They turned, and Niers’ tense chest unconstricted as he saw a group of four men sauntering down the road. Looking as if they’d gone for a stroll.
A Brother on the stroll with his hat off was not a relaxing sight at all, though. Four of them, led by Crimshaw, were walking towards Master Merxel.
He uttered a curse under his breath, before swinging around.
“Master…Crimshaw, is it? Master Met. Master—”
“Master Merxel. Good evening to you. And you, Miss Mrsha. Although I suspect no dessert’s in order, as I don’t believe you told anyone where you was going.”
Crimshaw smiled brightly as he looked at Mrsha. She’d gone still at the sight of the Brothers. Crimshaw gestured.
“Might want to run back to the inn before you get in trouble now, wouldn’t that be wise?”
She hesitated, half-looking towards Niers, catching herself, and then nodded. She scampered forwards. One of the [Bodyguards] moved as if to grab her—
Merxel breathed. The Brothers had…tensed…as the other man moved. They stood in the street.
“Gentlemen, I can assure you—”
Crimshaw broke in. He nodded to Mrsha, fleeing down the street at full gallop.
“The girl’s off limits. Now—I’m sure you had an excellent reason, Master Merxel. However, if it was diamonds for dust, it would not be a good enough one. She is off limits…and if we find a fellow asking after her, that fellow will vanish. Understand?”
“I understand, Master Crimshaw. But listen—this is about the T—”
Crimshaw was suddenly in Merxel’s face. He’d moved so fast the [Bodyguards] were still twisting, shock on their faces when the Brother hissed—and he was not the gentleman with the hat.
“Do you see a hat on my head, Merxel? We are done making mistakes. The first man who so much as sneezes at that girl ends up in pieces in the sewers—along with his entire crew. Understand?”
Merxel was smart enough to know when to nod and back up. Pale-faced, he and his [Bodyguards] stepped back. Niers himself exhaled slowly.
The odds were Merxel paid for top-quality [Bodyguards]. Even some of the best if he was worried about Niers, and there might have been more inside. None of that meant he wanted to deal with a Brother with their hat off. They were perfectly willing to fight to the death in the street, and having your teeth smashed into the curb by a boot was not a pretty way to die.
It was also astonishing to see them go to the Tier 9 option this fast. They must have taken Erin’s death as a true failing.
Could he trust them fully? Niers considered it, but then disregarded the notion. He was not someone for whom he could rely on their sense of honor with. People of his level were on the same level as a Face off the street for the Brothers, which meant their strict code of conduct was more negotiable.
Even so…when the Brothers went off to make sure Mrsha was fine, Niers slipped into Master Merxel’s home. The man had gotten unlucky with the Brothers. He’d had good fortune to get Mrsha while Niers wasn’t thinking straight. Sadly—that was all luck would have to say here.
Master Merxel sat in his office, trying to fold his hands together. He was ready. He knew it—or suspected.
If he’d been giving odds in his actual job, it would have only been around 4/10, or 6/10 if the bet wouldn’t bounce back on him. He was relatively certain, though.
Nevertheless, he flinched like a pre-graduate in his [Spy] training school when the magic lantern by his desk went dead. So did half of his warding runes.
He wasn’t trying to hide—at least, his presence.
Master Merxel spoke, relieved to find his voice smooth. He spread his hands, looking around. His bodyguards knocked on the door; Merxel raised his voice.
“Leave me! Until I call—remain on alert.”
Then he waited. After a second, someone spoke.
“Not going to run or have them here?”
The [Spymaster] licked his lips.
“There are a number in my home. Professionals. They know you might be the principal threat. You have your enchanted sword, and your considerable Skills, Lord Astoragon. I would not put you as a man who bets, however.”
“No, I don’t. I didn’t think you were, either, Merxel. But here we are. Where is my bag of holding?”
Where was he? The [Spymaster]’s head searched the darkness. He had [Cat’s Eye Vision] of course, among others, but the Fraerling was too small. He was invisible and the effect of his voice bouncing was disconcerting.
“Lord Astoragon, I swear on a truth spell that I intended no harm to that girl. I just wanted to—talk to you. Reasonably. I am not your enemy! I have not sold information on you, nor was I intending to capture you! You know me—I do not like risks that involve your life.”
“No, I suppose you don’t. Why the guards?”
“Any number of reasons, sir. Which you can imagine. Every Great Company has a bounty on you, and countless individuals want you. Living, dead, torn to pieces, stuffed—”
“I imagine. One question, Master Merxel. If you’re my ally, where’s my bag of holding? Where’s my gear? Put it on the table, walk out of the room, and I’ll reward you with all my gratitude.”
Master Merxel closed his eyes.
“Lord Astoragon, I don’t have it. I entrusted it to the Merchant’s Guild for safekeeping.”
“Then you gave it to the bastards!”
The voice echoed, now. He was using some kind of trick. A way to throw his voice to make it—Merxel had had enough. He drew a dagger and wand.
“Lord Astoragon, I faced every remaining [Assassin], [Rogue], and [Mercenary] for hire in the entire region if I didn’t do something with it! That is not taking sides! We can make a deal. I have magical contracts—”
“You knew I’d want it back. All you had to do was hold your nerve, Merxel. Was that really so hard?”
A…note of emotion entered the voice. Merxel put his back to the wall, away from any vents or anything but solid stone.
“Lord Astoragon. Don’t do this. I might have retired, but I was still a good [Spy]. I have my bodyguards—I’ve prepared for this.”
And there he was. He stood on Merxel’s desk, his sword in hand, crossbow in the other. A toothpick. Merxel stared at him. Niers Astoragon looked at the [Spymaster] and shook his head.
“I’m well aware of how good you were to survive. I just wish you had kept your spine. Master Merxel…tell me something. Which do you think is more dangerous? A [Strategist] with no army? Or a [Spy] in the open?”
The [Spymaster]’s lips moved.
If only it was a prayer. He looked at Niers as his arm tensed.
“Which reason is it?”
The Titan looked at him.
“Does it matter? Pick one.”
Mrsha the…Poor Infiltrator waited around a corner from Master Merxel’s home, and then, when the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings found her and ushered her back, in time-out in her room, and then, without dessert that night.
She was without an appetite, anyways. She was so worried about Niers, and kept getting Liska to open the door.
When he did return though, it was a shock. The Titan walked into Mrsha’s room and she…looked at him.
“Merxel was no good. I had a talk with him. He’s not willing to help. You did very well. I’m sorry he nearly grabbed you; he’s a smart man.”
The Titan smiled at her. Mrsha inspected him from head to toe, sniffing. He was exactly the same as last time. Exactly the same.
Except for the blood. Mrsha the…
It was supposed to be a grand adventure. A game. Only—the little Fraerling wasn’t funny anymore. Mrsha smelled him and he realized she was doing that.
He didn’t come up with an excuse she would have believed. Niers cursed as Mrsha backed up, smiling uneasily. He thought soap would have worked. Even with Merxel’s cologne…
Mrsha saw the Titan tilt his head back and think. Niers Astoragon wasn’t sure how to proceed. She was just a kid. He did not actually interact much with children.
Oh, young students of course, but they came to him as geniuses. Perhaps—that was the way to go.
“Very well. I did kill him.”
He spoke, and saw her hair actually rising. Apista buzzed down and perched on Mrsha’s head, now regarding him dangerously. Niers spoke, quickly, urgently, but as if he was lecturing her.
“I had to. Merxel knew you were working for me, and he was willing to give my bag of holding away. If there was a chance—they know I’m in Invrisil, but they would have known from Merxel anyways, I’m afraid. I killed him. I kill people, Mrsha. I am not a nice man. I am…the Titan of Baleros. With all that means. Do you understand that?”
She nodded, slowly, crouched. If she ran, it was over. Niers pointed towards the door.
“I want to help Erin Solstice. I want to help you. You have seen monsters and bad people, I know. You told me about Hectval, about the dungeon. I can help. I am the highest-leveled person you have ever met. Now, I made a mistake with Merxel. I won’t do it again. Nor will I put you in danger if I can help it. If your friends are raiding the Village of Death—they are in trouble. I know that spot. I’ve been there. They are going to die unless they fall back. Understand?”
Mrsha looked at him, eyes wide. Niers spoke, very carefully. He had toured the world in fame after becoming one of the Four Great Companies’ heads. He had met the King of Destruction, albeit in his slumber. That had been one of the most dangerous moments in his life, wondering if the [King] would order Orthenon to murder him.
Visiting the great mysteries and dungeons of the world had been another. Niers remembered when he felt the prescience of death hanging over his head, even with Foliana or his best [Soldiers] or escorts.
When he was about to descend into A’ctelios Salash’s guts.
Viewing the Last Tide from countless miles away.
Observing what came beyond the edge of the world.
Standing in Nerrhavia’s Tomb.
Meeting the Minds of the Selphids unannounced.
Entering the Village of Death…
Actually, there were a number of incidents. The Village of Death hadn’t been as certain as other places—because he’d pulled back. He’d wished he had a navy and the ability to pull together an army from the Forgotten Wing company with all the preparation he could muster, even grab Tulm for the promise of glory and Named Adventurers.
Nothing short of that would have tempted Niers to go in there. He looked at Mrsha, made his voice as reassuring, commanding, as possible.
“I can help them. You need to help me. Agreed?”
He stuck out a hand. Mrsha wavered—then slowly took it. Niers exhaled in relief as she took him back to the inn.
One down. Now, if I can just shake this feeling of dread—
Something’s coming. What the hell is making me so nervous around here?
A [Strategist] feared the uncertain far more than the certain. Niers’ skin was itching. His left earlobe tingled, as it sometimes did.
Skill tells me there are two damn attacks incoming on this rough position. I don’t give a single one of Foliana’s nuts for that. What the hell is making me nervous?
“So, what’s the plan?”
“Run screaming into the Village of Death, hit everything you see with [Fireball], freeze what tries to get up, snatch the loot, and run out?”
Soew laughed politely, and one of the three members of Elia Arcsinger’s team, the younger half-Elf, her daughter, laughed too.
The laughter faded when they realized Ceria was serious. Some of the other thirty-some adventurers and captains in the tent looked unsettled, but Jelaqua grinned.
So did Eldertuin. Well, it was a smile.
“You must not be serious. Is this what we’ve come here to do? I thought you had a plan. I might have organized a better strategy myself!”
[Prince] Zenol was more forthcoming about his objections. He was one of the thirty who’d been selected for a second, more official war-council. Those present were all able to contribute something, whether by friendship like Halrac or Jelaqua, magical knowledge like the [Mages], Zenol’s combined rank or status…
Elia Arcsinger had brought three teammates and no one had objected since it was…her. Besides that, however, no one else but individuals or Gold-rank captains were present.
“It’s the plan we were going with. Big distraction, smash and grab. Classic adventurer style. We would have done it by ourselves, but then all you showed up. We didn’t expect so many.”
Ceria looked around, embarrassed, but determined to be truthful. Pretending to have some big plan was even more sure to backfire than this.
“You were going to go in, all four of you?”
Elia Arcsinger’s daughter was young. Like—super-young. As in, short of thirty years old, which meant she looked closer to sixteen, sure, but as half-Elves went, Ceria wanted to stick a practice wand in her hand and put her in school.
She acted like a Gold-rank, though, which is what she was. Her name was Capoinelia, and she was outspoken. Also, incredulous.
“Yes. We were.”
Yvlon spoke up. All four Horns were there, even Ksmvr. Most of the Izrilians regarded him with deep distrust or nervousness; Zenol looked fascinated, as did Soew and the non-Izrilians. Which fascinated Ceria; they knew the stories, but Antinium were still just a different species to them.
“Well, we need a strategy. We’ll just get in each other’s way otherwise. Also, we need to discuss treasure allotment, payment for wounded or the dead…injury and consumable compensation.”
A Gold-rank folded his scarred arms, looking around the table. There were lots of nods. Ceria’s heart sank.
She knew those terms. Treasure allotment was the classic fight after the dungeon crawl. Payment for the wounded or dead? Standard. Injury and consumable compensation, though—that wasn’t what the Horns did.
It was for teams who wanted repayment for every healing potion, magical arrow, and even wounds taken. She spoke, calmly.
“That’s easy, Captain…?”
“Mehoff, thanks. Treasure allotment is equal split with all teams and individuals based on your total levels.”
One of the team-captains trailed off. Halrac broke in, his voice gravelly, frowning.
“It’s fair. We’re not wasting time on this.”
His voice was the voice of one of the veterans, and a lot of the other captains backed him up. Some looked disconsolate, but it was standard.
Level-based treasure sharing was simple. Your total levels were added up—you just had to give the level under truth spell, no details—and that was your ‘share’ out of the total. It meant a high-level team benefited more than an individual adventurer of course, but on the other hand, you couldn’t get a numbers-advantage in claiming loot. It was not perfect, but it was roughly fair.
“Just so long as we get something. I knew one adventurer who had 20+ levels of [Cook]; every time he got a level-share deal, he always told us his cooking was an essential part of adventuring.”
One of the captains joked. Everyone laughed at that old joke. Ceria smiled.
“Only combat classes. As for payment for wounded or dead, we’ll take it out of the total. Fair’s fair. Injury and consumable compensation though…no. We’re not paying for it. The Horns can’t guarantee it. This is a raid on a death-zone. You know what that means.”
She looked around and some faces sobered. There was an oath from the side. One of the [Mercenaries] pushed herself up.
“Hold on. I came thinking this wasn’t another suicide mission. Rumor made it sound like this had a chance! You’re just going to charge in there? That’s it?”
Ceria met her eyes.
“That’s it. Sorry if you bought into the hype. The Horns are going in. Everyone else distracts; those who volunteer help us break into the center, or the treasury, grab what we can, and run.”
“Why would anyone buy into this plan? Aside from the fact that so many other teams are doing it?”
Prince Zenol inquired mildly. The others were looking shaken. Ceria looked at Yvlon. The [Armsmistress] was ready—
It was Pisces who spoke up. The [Necromancer] was leaning against one of the tent poles. He spoke, aware of eyes on him. Everyone knew his name, ironically, from the bounties.
Pisces Jealnet. [Necromancer].
“You will buy into this plan because we, the Horns of Hammerad, want that treasure. We want a Relic-class object more than anything. That is our claim. One Relic-class object; healing preferred. Everything else, divided. We will sell our gear to make up for the loss if we must. When the raid starts, we will go in, alone if we must. And to reassure you, Miss. We do not intend to leave until we have one.”
The tent fell silent. Halrac looked at Pisces, then Ceria and Yvlon. The two women nodded. After a second, someone spoke.
“I believe this is what is referred to as ‘dominance’. Wherein we establish our superior commitment. Hello, I am Ksmvr.”
He waved all three hands. Someone started laughing again.
It was Eldertuin. He seemed the most down-to-earth of the two Named-ranks. Elia was standing like a statue, poised, her hair gleaming, holding the golden bow that Ceria had seen in illustrations. Eldertuin had massaged his back, shifted, and smiled at their plan.
“Spoken like any crazy adventurers I partied with. I came here to join in. So let’s make a plan and anyone who wants to backs out. Don’t waste this team’s time.”
Ceria bowed slightly to him. He nodded back. Prince Zenol smiled too.
“And here I thought the only adventurers with spine were those who had it stitched into them. Let’s begin.”
The planning of the raid on the Village of the Dead wasn’t actually where Ceria stayed long. She let Soew and the most able-minded group talk it out with Yvlon, who actually had a better head for strategy, not field tactics.
It wasn’t going to be that elaborate anyways. They’d attack from a few angles, but one main direction so they could reinforce each other. Multiple ‘spears’ would jab in, each one led by the treasure-team, which was comprised of mobile forces or volunteers, like Ceria.
All ranged-adventurers and [Mages] would advance slower, with a rear-guard keeping an escape route and reinforcements for a retreat.
Simple. They didn’t have time to coordinate and the idea was to hit the Village of the Dead so hard that even the immortal undead with their unnatural regeneration wouldn’t have time to catch the real players.
What Ceria did in the meantime was meet the other adventurers. Perhaps persuade some of those now uncertain to stay.
Ironically, the best person to start the introductions and foster some goodwill was Pisces. As the adventurers were talking about teams who would not participate—the Yellow Rivers team had two infected members, so they couldn’t heal and were thus liabilities—he sighed.
“If we are trying to preserve fighting strength, who was that fool who got their foot run over? I could see if I can mend the bones overnight. At least well enough to stand on for a [Mage] or [Archer].”
“What? You? That clod-foot is one of mine. What’re you going to do, though? Cut her foot off and animate it back on?”
The [Mercenary] captain squawked. Pisces gave her his best sniff.
“I am a [Necromancer], madam. Not some [Saw Doctor]. Among my manifold talents is the ability to mend bone. [Necromancer]? Bone? I can do what a healing potion cannot, and have her walking in a hundredth of the time. If you’d consent to letting one of my kind touch her, that is.”
The [Mercenary] hesitated, not least because of his tone, but as luck would have had it…
“Are you a good [Necromancer], like Perril Chandler before some ass ruined it?”
She quipped. Everyone turned to Pisces. He…
“Say rather, Miss [Mercenary], that I was a bad [Necromancer]. Until I met a good person.”
His tone was distant. He looked at Ceria and she bit her lip. Smiling, holding back the pang in her chest. The [Mercenary] captain didn’t know what to make of that.
“For the [Innkeeper] of Liscor.”
Ceria looked at the Captain of the Lifwail Blades. The Drake shrugged as heads rose, including Elia Arcsinger’s and Eldertuin’s.
“That’s why we’re here. If you don’t know—ask someone who wants to explain.”
More than one team was here for Erin Solstice. However, what surprised Ceria was that more than one team was here because of them. Before she met the Pithfire Hounds, who had asked to meet them, citing a certain Wind Runner as the reason for dragging half a dozen Silver-ranks south, another team captain asked to make her acquaintance by name.
“Captain Ceria of the Horns of Hammerad. I am Dorgon of Maweil, from the House of Minos. My team and I wished to speak to you about one of your former members on the eve of battle.”
Ceria’s skin prickled. Accordingly, frost raced up her arms, instead of goose bumps. It melted as she turned and saw the slimmest Minotaur she had ever met in her life, and there had only been half a dozen at most.
Dorgon looked slender compared to Calruz, Bezale, and most of his kind. Not malnourished or even thin, just not with the bulky muscles Ceria had seen the other Minotaurs sporting. On the other hand…he had two shortswords, or rather, a combined shortsword-swordbreaker and a traditional shortsword.
“Dorgon of Maweil? I greet you—er—”
Ceria tried to remember the phrase Calruz had sometimes used.
“From…the House of Minos’s shores…uh…”
“…to wherever we land. By honor we stand.”
He finished the phrase as two more Minotaurs walked over, clasping his hands together. He bowed and Ceria did too. Dorgon gestured.
“This is Wered of Hammerad. Also of Maweil is Thoven.”
They greeted her as well. Wered was an [Armorbreaker], a specialist who carried a long, heavy maul. The entire purpose was to smash armor to bits. Thoven was interesting. He carried some kind of insane…
“Is that even a bow?”
“It’s called an X-bow.”
The Minotaur gestured to the crossed bows, which met at the center. It was like if someone fused two regular bows to form an ‘X’. Ceria had no idea why this would make it better. It looked either silly as hell, or intimidating, since they were both oversized longbows and the draw on the combined weapon had to be comparable to a ballista or something.
“My team is known as Maweil’s Reach. We are Silver-ranks.”
Ceria didn’t believe it. Even when he’d been ‘Silver’, that had been because his team was Silver-ranked and Calruz was stronger than a number of Gold-rank adventurers even without gear. Dorgon’s lips quirked.
“It is customary to work your way up through the ranks, and my team has only been adventuring for nine months. The House of Minos does not issue adventurer rankings.”
Calruz had complained about that, or so Ceria recalled. And it was Calruz she suddenly thought of.
It was for Calruz that they were here. Dorgon led her to their outdoor camp, and treated her to a drink that tasted stiff, but had no alcohol in it.
“We don’t care to dull our senses so close to the battlefield. If you have wine…”
“I’m fine. How can I help you?”
The Minotaurs exchanged glances. Pisces was off mending bones, Yvlon planning, and Ksmvr was ‘establishing dominance’ elsewhere. Besides, Ceria was the one they wanted to see.
“We had heard that a member of our people disgraced themselves at Liscor and was continuing to be held prisoner. We even received an appeal from him to…adjudicate. That is not our role, but we had considered making the request when he heard his old team was mounting a raid.”
Wered spoke, as this seemed to concern her as much as Dorgon—her being from Hammerad. Ceria’s blood chilled.
“Did you come to settle a score? Or…to find something?”
“We came to see what sort of legacy Calruz of Hammerad left. As for his fate—we hope it will be resolved here.”
Dorgon put down his cup, wiping the Nolemn from his mouth, whatever the drink was called. He looked at Ceria directly.
“You are aware that the House of Minos offers honorable deaths to those who disgrace themselves? Calruz of Hammerad’s crimes as reported would not merit even that. Treachery, betrayal, consort in murder and kidnapping…”
“That’s not the whole story.”
“We are aware.”
Dorgon shrugged. He looked at his companions. Wered took over.
“There is another adjudicator who is actually able to give rulings who may go to Liscor. If so, Calruz of Hammerad will have his fate. We would like to intervene, however. Your raid was as bold as we could have hoped. You truly intend to strike the heart of this death-zone, despite the peril?”
Ceria’s heart began to beat faster now. The Minotaurs exchanged a glance.
“Then we shall participate. And if your team succeeds, or if you all fall—we shall bear witness. If you act as we think you will, we shall petition the adjudicator to remand Calruz of Hammerad to our care. He will find the honorable end he seeks with us.”
For a second, Ceria was just flabbergasted. It was what she wanted and exactly not at the same time. In the end, she looked at Dorgon.
“How would that even work?”
“Aside from the city’s laws—which we would have to appease—the conduct of Calruz’s companions would speak to itself. If they conduct themselves with honor and appeal for a chance for him to redeem himself, despite being, no, especially because their captain was wronged by him, that should influence the adjudicator’s decisions. We may even have a mandate to appeal for this ourselves. I believe you would do so.”
Ceria nodded slowly.
“That…I would. Not for Calruz to die fighting monsters, though.”
“We must all die some day.”
Thoven spoke, taciturn, adjusting his X-bow’s strings. Ceria saw the Minotaurs nod. Wered reached out, and Dorgon offered Ceria a toast.
“Death before dishonor.”
He held the dark ochre drink out to Ceria. The half-Elf looked at it, and then at them. She opened her mouth, then—smiled. She took the cup, lifted it, and spoke.
“Let’s not die and get lots of loot.”
She downed the cup. The Minotaurs blinked at her, astounded, angry—then they guffawed with laughter.
Ksmvr was walking around the adventurer camp, aware of the socialization going on. Contrary to Ceria’s expectations, he was not ‘establishing dominance’.
Rather, he was watching other adventurers talk, greet each other, laugh, get drunk, argue over old grudges, all rituals in the prelude to battle.
He was alone, however. Many stared; few talked to the Antinium.
That was only what Ksmvr expected. He knew the reputation of Antinium. He was alone, Hiveless, but for his team. But for Erin Solstice and few others. Ksmvr was grateful for that. Better to have three people than zero. The math checked out.
So, as he walked, Ksmvr thought about this battle. Like the last one with the Adult Creler. Survival was not guaranteed. It was far from likely.
His goal for the battle was simple. The Horns should succeed. They would not relent until their objective had been achieved. It was an Antinium sentiment, which he understood.
Casualties were likely. Almost certain. Therefore, if a member of the Horns of Hammerad perishes, it should be because I am already deceased.
A simple goal. Ksmvr mused as he walked, until he was accosted by an unusual sound. An attack vector focused on him.
Casually, Ksmvr swung around, having anticipated adventurer hostility. Three of Crossbow Stan’s weapons aimed at the running shape of—
“Makki! Stop, stop! Don’t shoot!”
The giant wolfhound dog didn’t hit Ksmvr, but darted around him, sniffing. Ksmvr looked down at it. He lowered the three crossbows as the Silver-rank team stopped.
The Pithfire Hounds gave Ksmvr the same goggle-eyed look as most adventurers. However, one recovered enough to point; he wore red robes, embroidered with decorative flames.
“You must be Ksmvr, of the Horns of Hammerad! Sorry about our dog—she’s going crazy with so many things around. I’m Levil—uh—”
“Ah. You are the Pithfire Hounds, a Silver-rank team based in Reizmelt and affiliated with Ryoka Griffin. Known for your use of combat-dogs.”
The other five adventurers blinked as they skidded to a stop. A much larger dog than even this ‘Makki’ halted next to their side. The animal sniffed and regarded Ksmvr more warily, but it was clearly well-trained.
The Aldasian Warhound relaxed at once. Ksmvr was fascinated.
Obviously he knew this team. He had committed every team participating in the raid to memory; no doubt Ceria, Pisces, and Yvlon had done even more research.
“They’re friendly. Um—sorry about Makki. Makki, come here!”
The dog bounded over and Ksmvr nodded.
“I have taken no offense. However, I would encourage you to watch your dog near more volatile adventurers.”
Levil nodded. He stood there hesitating, in the way Ksmvr realized people did when they had no easy segue into conversation. So he provided one.
“I am indeed Ksmvr. Are you looking for my team captain on urgent business regarding the raid?”
“No—er—that is, we’re committed. We don’t have anything important; the [Strategist] already took our warhounds into account. We’ll be fighting on the flanks, except for Levil, who’ll be raining spells from afar. We just wanted to introduce ourselves because we heard the Horns knew Ryoka. That’s why we’re here.”
“Ah. I have met Ryoka Griffin.”
“Great! Well, she saved our hides and got us Mousey here, so we’re in her debt.”
“Indeed. This parallels our experience with Ryoka.”
Levil’s mouth worked. Ullica, the other [Mage], looked somewhat taken aback. Ksmvr gave them nothing to work with—until he looked down.
Bram whispered, but the dog was sniffing at Ksmvr, unable to credit this Antinium even among the varied smells she was encountering. At least she wasn’t growling or seeing him as a threat.
The foreign Antinium adventurer looked down at the dog. After a second, he bent and the Pithfire Hounds tensed.
Ksmvr began petting Makki, hesitantly, then stroking her head. The dog leaned into it, and Ksmvr spoke as the adventurers watched, fascinated.
“Pet, pet. Good dog.”
Petting dogs was not like petting horses. Ksmvr was amazed by this novel experience. He only looked up when he heard a sound.
Levil was grinning.
“You like dogs, um, Adventurer Ksmvr?”
“I do not know. I have never met a dog before in this proximity. Am I petting it right?”
“You can scratch behind her ears or rub her belly.”
It dawned on Pithfire Hounds that Ksmvr was not exaggerating. Apart from seeing them from afar, or perhaps eating one if the Antinium had ever included dog in their nutritional paste—unlikely, as Liscor didn’t sell much dog meat—Ksmvr had never met a pet before.
Then Mousey walked over at a whisper from Levil and Ksmvr pet two dogs. And scratched a belly.
As it turned out, not only was Ksmvr fond of patting animals on the head, he was in fact, a superior petter since he had three hands and could therefore provide a 50% increase in ear scratches compared to other species.
Ceria found Ksmvr sitting on the ground, surrounded by four dogs, a hunting hawk, and a magical cat familiar, having broken through the species barrier with the power of petting animals. He looked up as he scratched Makki behind the ears gently.
“Captain Ceria, I have discovered the therapeutic benefits of petting animals. I suggest we incorporate this into our team’s strategy.”
The half-Elf blinked at him. Was…that Ksmvr’s way of asking for a dog? Then she shook hands with Levil, who looked at his opposite, the half-Elf [Cryomancer] surrounded by her aura of cold, with some amazement.
Yvlon Byres walked out of the short strategy meeting feeling confident…in that no huge mistakes had been made. Soew was a decent [Strategist] and hadn’t come up with some convoluted plan.
Fight the enemy in a multi-pronged attack, with a few signals for fall back, rallying, danger—but don’t complicate things. Let the teams do what they did best. Arranging it had still taken nearly three hours, but they were done.
Aside from getting to the Village of the Dead tomorrow and setting up, they could rest. Yvlon intended to find the other teams she knew and talk—before tomorrow.
What had surprised Yvlon was that she had been nominated to start the attack. Obviously Soew would help coordinate, but the raid needed a leader and since Ceria had left, they’d asked her to begin.
“No speeches are necessary. They often don’t have much of a morale effect unless you have a Skill. Just send us into battle, Adventurer Yvlon.”
She would do that. Yvlon felt her body tingling.
Even her arms. She looked at them. Silver and steel; metal flesh. Yet she could feel if she closed her hands. Pain was gone, but sensation remained, albeit a bit dulled. She had seen the other adventurers glancing at her arms during the planning session. Yvlon felt like she stood out compared to all but the most noticeable adventurers.
So much better than her numb, tingling arms, leaking blood and pus, ruined by the injury at Albez. So much better; she was so much stronger.
Yet if Yvlon could have traded these arms for her old ones…she tried to forget about them. She didn’t hate her arms. Not exactly. It was just that if she had confided in her team, which she should have done, but had been too busy, too ashamed to say out loud, she would have simply said that she no longer felt…entirely Human.
More like a half-Golem or something. Yvlon knew Ksmvr admired the ‘upgrade’, but she felt a terrible feeling of unease, of wrongness, that intensified the more people stared, or the longer she looked at herself in a mirror.
Ceria has a bone hand. Live with it. Focus on the battle. Yvlon shook her head. Silver and steel be her guide; she would need every edge in this coming fight.
She was looking for Pisces, Ceria, and Ksmvr, when she heard the clash of metal on metal, and shouting. Yvlon turned her head. She had an unpleasant feeling, which intensified when she saw the crowd and the flashing silhouettes of two adventurers.
The telltale, white robes made Yvlon break into a run. She pushed through the crowd, easily shoving adventurers aside to stop the duel as two Humans fought, swords in hand.
“Enough! This isn’t the time for fights! Leave him—”
Pisces put up his rapier at the same time as the other man lowered his weapon. He too carried a rapier, albeit slightly altered, with a loop hilt instead of Pisces’ swept hilt guard, and he had a little parrying dagger in the other hand. A silver bell rang as he put up his blades.
Yvlon halted. She had been ready to grab both blades to stop what she assumed to be a duel Pisces had landed in—by his tongue or his class. However, Pisces looked amused, and the other man did too.
“What’s going on?”
The [Necromancer] cleared his throat as adventurers chuckled.
“Merely an exhibition, a training match of skill, Yvlon. I appreciate you coming to my aid…but that was not required in this case. May I present [Fencing Instructor] Tomoor d’Silaw, Silver-rank adventurer, who has elected to participate in the raid?”
The man gave Yvlon a flashy bow as he stowed the parrying dagger. His rapier traced the ground in a fanciful pattern. As he rose, his free hand smoothed at his lips, touching an extremely small and well-maintained mustache.
“Oh. Not a duel?”
“A match between [Fencers] worthy of the silver bell, Miss Byres. Adventurer Pisces had mentioned he once carried one, and I had to see if it was true. Well, I think it is! I would award it myself if I faced him on the practice courts.”
Some of the other adventurers murmured. Pisces had been doing well until Yvlon barged in. Tomoor looked at the [Armsmistress], now embarrassed.
“Your teammate is quite skilled, Miss Byres. Practically an imitation of Perril Chandler—which of course, is why I’m here. That historical broadcast was inspiring. I decided to come out of retirement and show my students some true fencing.”
He struck the air with his rapier, smoothing his mustache again. Yvlon nodded, looking at Pisces. He smiled.
“Well then. Er—sorry to interrupt. Apologies. I thought—”
She backed up. Pisces smiled at Tomoor and flicked his rapier up.
“Do you know Chandler’s Rebuke, Instructor Tomoor? I’ve never actually learned it.”
“We could give it a shot. I’m no [Mage], but—shall we continue? My advantage, I think…”
The two began dueling again, in front of the interested crowd. Among the watchers, Yvlon noticed, were other melee-experts. Not Briganda, but the kind who liked the finesse and technique of weapons. Briganda was very good, Yvlon knew, but she wasn’t a…student like some were.
One of the watchers, for instance, was Pekona, the [Blade Dancer] of Vuliel Drae. She eyed Yvlon, and the [Armsmistress] nodded shortly; she still remembered Vuliel Drae’s mess up.
Not every adventurer you had to drink with and clap on the back. You just had to fight together. If Todi was here, Yvlon would have stayed across the camp from him.
Was he here? It might not surprise Yvlon at this point. Todi’s Elites weren’t risk-takers, but they might think this was a raid worthy of the risk.
She saw Revi, walking away from a fire with some roasted strips of meat on a stick. Adventurers were cooking, and the [Summoner] had just bartered for some food.
“Revi. There you are. Have you seen any of the other teams? Also—is Todi here?”
“Todi? You think he’d risk his neck, even with this crowd?”
Revi snorted. After a second, she handed the smallest wood skewer to Yvlon, and the [Armsmistress] took it.
“No, Todi’s not here. However, I’m surprised at how many teams did show up. Did you see Arcsinger’s Bows and Eldertuin? I think we might have a shot!”
“He’s not going in as deep as everyone else. He said so straight out. It’s a—favor. Of sorts. Ryoka Griffin asked him to participate, so he’ll guard our flanks. He’s not charging with the treasure-grabbers, though.”
Revi wrinkled her face, but she was impressed.
“Ryoka got Eldertuin the Fortress to join a raid? She is so weird. How many connections does she have? That’s Runners for you.”
Yvlon nodded. It had surprised her too. Which reminded her—she dug in her bag of holding.
“Thanks for the food, Revi. If you see Griffon Hunt—pass these out.”
She counted about a dozen small objects into Revi’s hands. The Stitch Girl had to dump some of her food in her bag of holding.
“What’s this? What’s—is this baby corn? Why does it look weird? It’s red! Blue!”
“I have no clue. Eldertuin was passing it out. Apparently it’s baby corn from some [Corn Farmer]. Spicy, sweet—”
“Oh, yum! Thanks! Er—have another skewer.”
The two were chatting when Yvlon saw someone coming their way. She almost missed him because he wasn’t reclining on the golden palanquin, but Prince Zenol still looked eerily beautiful.
Not attractive to her necessarily, just beautiful. There was something too unnatural for Yvlon’s taste about his skin. To describe the effect silk had on Stitchfolk was to make comparisons with the adjectives, ‘supple’, ‘flawless’, ‘soft’, and other such descriptors.
In short, he had no pimples, pock marks, freckles, or other skin blemishes, and he moved with ease, his body being constructed out of one of the best materials for his people. He was rather like Ceria, in some ways, although the half-immortal effect of half-Elves was different than physical artifice taken to its limit.
Either way, he stood out, as did his natural superior attitude and expensive cloth-armor clothing. Yvlon recognized enchantments, but it was still arrogant to walk around as if he was dressed for a party, except for the single curved sword at his hip.
She was not about to bow to the foreign [Prince], but Zenol’s effect on Revi was dramatic. She instantly turned and bowed, deeply.
“Your Highness, Prince Zenol! We’re honored by your presence, sire.”
“Ah. You must be Revi Cotton of Griffon Hunt. Lady Byres. I had hoped to meet your Antinium comrade before battle began. I am curious about the Antinium.”
“Prince Zenol. I don’t know where Ksmvr is, but if you would like, we can find him together.”
Yvlon was a [Lady], but she refused to dance on his protocol. Nor did Zenol insist, but Revi clearly knew more from Chandrar than Yvlon.
“Let us find him, then. I understand your entire team is unusual. A half-Elf with a skeleton’s hand, a [Necromancer] worthy of a silver bell; he duels fairly well, even by Nerrhavia’s standards. An Antinium from the Hives, unique, and yourself. May I inquire as to your unique arms?”
Yvlon saw Revi tagging along behind them, and realized she had fallen behind. She turned to gesture, and Revi shook her head. She mouthed something.
“Ah. [Summoner] Revi, join us. We are in Izril, so such protocols from home do not apply.”
“Of course, Prince Zenol!”
Revi hurried forwards. Yvlon eyed Zenol. The Stitch-man shrugged in reply to the unsaid question.
“She is Cotton. I am Silk. I am also one of Nerrhavia’s [Princes], no matter how many of us there are. We would not walk together unless she was in my service. Even then—it would be highly unusual.”
“I see. What brought you from Nerrhavia’s Fallen all the way here, Prince Zenol?”
He smiled, arching a brow as he looked at Yvlon.
“Certainly not a desire for respect or awe, if that is what you are asking, Lady Byres. I had considered posing as a mere commoner, but I doubted I would fool anyone. I came to prove myself. For adventure, rather than luxury. This raid called to me.”
He gestured and Yvlon glanced over her shoulder and realized the six palanquin bearers were silently trailing them. Two were rough, big Stitchfolk; Hemp. The other three were Cotton, with the last being Silk.
“My team, and my servants. I know what some of the other teams surely think of me, but rest assured. When we join in battle, I will not fall behind any other team. Nerrhavia’s pride is with my group.”
“I don’t doubt that, Prince Zenol. I’m just taken aback by your customs. Forgive me if I indicated otherwise.”
The Stitch-man glanced at Yvlon and actually stooped slightly, as if to see her face from a different angle.
“…You don’t, do you? Well, that is a refreshing change. May I ask about your arms, if it is not offensive? You must understand that it fascinates me to see someone who can change their skin as we do; I imagine Dullahans think the same.”
They did—Yvlon shifted uncomfortably and shrugged.
“It’s less glamorous than you imagine. I injured both arms badly. My armor melted into my bones when fighting a Flame Elemental; I was practically crippled until I consolidated a class and…”
She gestured. Zenol nodded, raising his eyebrows.
“Quite fortuitous. Was it simply a great stroke of luck? I do know of [Injured Warriors] who gain Skills to make up for lost limbs, but this is far rarer.”
“Not—exactly. I had uh, kept my arms functional with help. My teammate, Pisces—he is a [Necromancer], so he reinforced my bones, enough to keep me fighting.”
“Ah. Now there is a secret worthy of a class. I thank you, Lady Byres. You do me honor with your trust.”
Did she? Revi looked agog, like she was meeting a huge celebrity, but Yvlon wondered if she had said more than she should. Well—good for [Necromancers]. She walked with Prince Zenol until they met Ksmvr in the animal-pile.
Prince Zenol was haughty, but like the others, he seemed like a real adventurer the more they talked. If he showed no wounds, well—when Ksmvr inquired, the [Prince] instantly turned.
“We do not need healing potions in the same quantities, but we are quite willing to throw ourselves into the Village of the Dead to find the treasure and escape. I have prepared emergency-limbs of course. See?”
One of his people produced nearly a dozen perfectly-sewn silk arms, legs, even organs and other body parts. All of them looked like cloth—until they were swapped into the body.
“How sensible. I wish I were capable of modular reattachment. My missing arm has been most inconvenient. See?”
Ksmvr waggled his stump of a fourth arm.
“True, true! It is refreshing to see Antinium understand the superior nature of Stitchfolk bodies!”
Prince Zenol laughed, quite taken with Ksmvr. Ironically, the [Prince] from Chandrar had less reservations about talking with Ksmvr than Izrilians. He even asked the floating questions no one had dared to utter.
“So, are more Antinium willing to adventure? Or is your Hive as monolithic as I’ve been told? Will they be continuing the Third Antinium War?”
Ksmvr tilted his head.
“That is not my decision to make, Prince Zenol. However, I will happily talk about my Hive in some respects if you will inform me about Nerrhavia’s Fallen’s inner functionality in great detail. Otherwise, it would appear you are asking for information with no compensation, a very unfair stance.”
“By the sands—”
One of the servants took offense to Ksmvr’s familiar tone. Zenol just lifted a hand.
Revi nodded emphatically behind Prince Zenol, and Yvlon saw that three more Stitchfolk adventurers from abroad were also watching him, trailing about, offering sycophantic comments.
It was so unlike Revi she had to pull the [Summoner] aside as Ceria walked over.
“Is that Prince Zenol? Oh no. Someone stop Ksmvr from establishing dominance.”
Yvlon ignored the joke—which was growing tired after a thousand times, like the ‘is it war?’ joke that Pisces and Ceria loved bantering about. She turned to Revi.
“Revi, why are you bowing and scraping to him?”
“Because he’s a [Prince], Yvlon! You’re telling me—oh, right. Izrilians and their thing about monarchy.”
“You’re not even from Nerrhavia’s Fallen, though! I remember you telling me you were from the western coast!”
The [Silversteel Armsmistress] pointed out. Octavia was from Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Revi gave Yvlon a roll of her eyes.
“So? Nerrhavia’s Fallen is a superpower! It’s one of the String People nations. Besides which, it doesn’t matter. If Prince Zenol really, really were to like me—he could elevate me to Silk! Or beyond!”
Ceria made an ‘oh’ expression. The cloth-caste system of the String Folk. Yvlon nodded slowly.
“Well—he’s not going to notice you if you just smile like that and echo his every word. Be more…Revi. That’ll get his attention.”
“And get her kicked all the way down to Hemp.”
Ceria joked. Revi gave the half-Elf a look.
“Don’t joke. It could happen.”
“Tree rot, really? I had no idea…”
Explanations about String Folk society were cut off as someone materialized and grabbed Ceria’s arm.
“Excuse me, Captain Ceria? Adventurer Arcsinger would like a word.”
A Human man, one of Arcsinger’s Bows, made all the adventurers turn. Yvlon raised her brows. Ceria turned at once.
“Of course. Does she need anything?”
“She’d like a word. Privately?”
Yvlon and Ceria nodded. The man glanced at Yvlon. He hesitated.
“Privately, Captain Ceria? Between half-Elves?”
The [Armsmistress] frowned, but she nodded and stepped back. She waved at Ceria, who looked at her.
“Go on. We’ll talk to Prince Zenol. Find out what she wants.”
Elia Arcsinger was more mysterious than Eldertuin to Ceria. For one thing, the half-Elf [Archer] had a longer career than even the older-looking Eldertuin.
Well, she was a half-Elf, and ten years ago she had rocketed to her world-famous status. Before that she had been an adventurer…actually, Ceria didn’t know more than that.
She knew what every half-Elf knew about one of their people’s Named Adventurers. Elia Arcsinger, Kingslayer. Known for her [Line-Ender Shot], which had been granted to her when she slew the Goblin King in the final battle.
Goblinbane! Her team crushed Goblins wherever they went, rooting them out and preventing the threat of a Goblin King from ever resurfacing while Elia lived.
That was…less reassuring than it used to be, now Ceria had met Goblins. However, she still felt the awe of Elia’s fame hanging over her. She had said very little during the strategy meeting, only giving assent a few times. Her daughter and the other two teammates she’d brought had made more comments.
The [Cryomancer] had taken it to be Elia being naturally aloof, as someone with her fame might be. Or—a kind of female Halrac, all focus, not deigning to speak unless she had to.
The truth was that Elia Arcsinger was actually rather retiring in person. She greeted Ceria with a light kiss on each cheek, exceptionally familiar, and smiled.
“Sister, come in. Thank you for meeting me in private.”
With that, she ushered Ceria into her private tent. Her team’s camp was spaced away from the others, as befitted a Named-rank team. They had everything one might expect of a team with a Named-rank adventurer. High-quality, spatially enchanted tents. Luxury wherever you went! Ceria saw a four-poster bed in one of the other tents.
“My daughter’s. We could skip inns and just live in them, but one grows accustomed to living in style.”
Elia explained. Her tent didn’t have the huge bed, but it did have a number of amenities, including a vanity. Ceria found herself sipping from some high-quality wine and staring.
“T-thank you for inviting me, Adventurer Arcsinger.”
“Elia will do. We are half-Elves far from home. I don’t know if I should call you ‘sister’, but I hope we can work together.”
The Named-adventurer smiled and Ceria nodded, already charmed. Elia’s golden bow was propped up next to her bed, and the adventurer still wore her enchanted leather armor.
“How can I—that is, my team—help you, Ad—Elia? Miss Arcsinger? Is something wrong with the battle? Do you have any insights?”
The Named Adventurer shook her head. She sat, sipping the wine, and made a face.
“I was going to talk about home first—oh well. I…er…wished to talk to you about our role in the battle before we began.”
Ceria nodded as Elia fiddled with her cup and a bowl of snacks from home; very subtle, delicate, edible…leaves. Elfleaf it was called, because half-Elves ate it. It was a connoisseur’s dish. Ceria hated it unless you dumped sugar or syrup on the stuff. Elia bit one delicately, chewed, and came out with it.
“…My team will be participating in a ranged capacity. Some of my warriors will be fighting on the flanks, of course, but I myself will not be joining the first wave.”
“Oh—I think Yvlon mentioned that. Of course not. You’re an [Archer] even if you’re…”
Elia held up a delicate hand. Ceria hesitated and then felt the oddity. Elia took another sip of wine.
“What I meant, Ceria, was that my team will not be advancing…quickly…at all. We will of course provide all the firepower we can, but we will not advance into potentially dangerous engagements. I hoped you could communicate this to Strategist Soew.”
For a while, the [Arctic Cryomancer] thought she was misinterpreting. After three minutes, she realized she was not.
Elia Arcsinger, unlike Eldertuin, who’d been open about his position and willingness to commit, was also not like Prince Zenol or the Minotaurs, who were both in the front waves. She danced around it as Ceria said she could place her elsewhere.
“We should be in the first wave. However…”
She wanted to be in the front, but not be in the front. Ceria heard a familiar voice in her head, making an offhand remark. When she had asked Grimalkin if he had Elia Arcsinger on a list of people who could best him in combat…
“I—I can tell Soew to work with your team’s placement, Elia. But can I ask why…?”
The older woman gave Ceria an embarrassed smile. A slight flush entered her pale cheeks and she shifted. She turned, glancing at her bow in her seat.
“It’s not what I’d prefer, of course, Ceria. I know a Named Adventurer should be first into the charge, and I’ll be loosing every arrow I have to keep us alive. However…it’s my team. You know Arcsinger’s Bows aren’t Named-rank, despite having me in the team?”
“It’s because our combat capacity is lacking. Slightly. We are good at fighting Goblins, as you might expect. However, I don’t often commit to high-level engagements…because of my daughter. You understand?”
Capoinelia? Ceria’s eyes widened as she understood. Elia nodded, glancing at the tent flaps, and lowering her voice, although Ceria was sure they were warded.
“She’s not even thirty. I imagine you found her…young. You grew up in the villages, didn’t you?”
“Yeah. She seemed—well, really young. But she grew up…”
“On the move. I was an adventurer, she was a baby when I slew the Goblin King. She grew up with me as the famed Named Adventurer. I’m afraid it’s warped her perceptions of this life.”
Elia shrugged regretfully. She gestured to the expensive tent.
“She’s never had to sleep in the mud, and her first bow was enchanted. She’s certainly Gold-rank—but I don’t want to put her into a situation where she might advance into trouble. You understand?”
Ceria did. Her heart fell as she realized Elia was asking her to…no, they’d still be loosing arrows. She smiled, keeping her sinking heart from showing on her face.
“I understand, of course, Elia. I’ll speak to Soew now.”
“Stay, please. I would like to chat of home. How long has it been since you left Terandria?”
Ceria wavered, and then sat. Elia was charming, and not at all haughty due to her fame. Aside from her request, Ceria would have loved this talk.
Aside from the request. She might have asked Elia about the famous shot, about her daughter and Goblins, but they never got to that point.
Capoinelia burst into the tent as the two were laughing over half-Elf villages.
“Mother! Mother, come quick—”
She saw Ceria and stopped. Elia rose, already going for her bow. Ceria had her wand out.
“It’s the camp! Just hurry!”
Ceria sprinted out of the tent with Capoinelia, Elia delayed by grabbing her bow. What Ceria saw was shouting, a commotion—everyone was clustered around something. She pushed through the crowd as adventurers saw her, or heard the other half-Elf.
“Move aside! Arcsinger’s Bows! Elia Arcsinger is—”
“Ceria, there you are!”
Someone found her. Jelaqua, towering above most in her Raskghar battle-body, grabbed Ceria. She was pulled into the center of the spectacle.
“It was a damned accident! It’s not—what does it mean?”
An Oldblood Drake, one of the Lifwail Blades, was standing with his team, arguing with team Captains. Eldertuin himself was kneeling, inspecting something. As Ceria appeared with the Horns, they spun.
Keldrass, whom Ceria had not seen yet, was blinking down. He looked at her.
“Ceria. What did you do? Is this why you were so confident?”
“It has to be. Hah! We have a chance!”
Prince Zenol’s eyes were wide and gleaming. He was inspecting the same thing; Ceria smelled something foul, and the acrid stench of burnt flesh. He glanced up at her.
“What did you do?”
Eldertuin was quieter. He looked just as incredulous as some of the other team captains. Ceria didn’t understand why, until she heard the Lifwail Blade’s member explaining.
“We were just trying to see if the legend was true and you couldn’t fly over the Village of Death. We were scouting—one of the bastards was there and I breathed fire on it, alright? I thought it wouldn’t matter…”
They were all crowded around a corpse. A corpse from the Village of Death? Ceria was appalled. They were going to start the raid early—
Then she realized something. The smoldering, burning corpse wasn’t moving. The zombie or Ghoul or whatever it had been…wasn’t getting up.
The unnatural healing, the regeneration that had doomed entire armies trying to enter this death-zone? The body lay, burnt, motionless. No magical light showing in its eyes.
“…It’s not undead. It’s just a body.”
Pisces straightened. His eyes were wide, but he tried to hide it as every adventurer slowly turned to Ceria. Her heart was pounding, and she looked at him. His eyes flickered. Yvlon, Ksmvr—all glanced at him, and then looked at Ceria.
“What did you do?”
Revi breathed, awestruck. Ceria glanced at Pisces before fumbling for words.
The next day—the raid on the Village of the Dead began. This time, everyone woke and assembled, marching the three miles to the death-zone, to the undefeated landmark of necromancy, feeling the same thing in the air. A chance. An opportunity.
He felt fear.
Fear, because it was too soon. Too soon for the Horns of Hammerad. Fear and uncertainly. For even the Necromancer, Az’kerash, of whom so much had been said, had no idea how the undead had stopped rising.
The broadcast of Grand Magus Eldavin had revealed to the world the truth of Perril Chandler. How he had risen and fallen.
…An incomplete truth. If Az’kerash had dared, he would have been the angry caller denouncing the inaccuracies, the parts of the story left unspoken.
It was largely correct. Sort of. If you ignored real details the story simply skipped over. The arrogance of a storyteller who hadn’t been there, only seen from afar.
However. Although he had been obsessed with the telling and retelling and reactions of the world, however inaccurate, Archmage Chandler, Perril Chandler, the Necromancer, Az’kerash, was focused on this raid.
He should have stopped it. It was too soon. The Horns of Hammerad had no chance whatsoever of penetrating the Putrid One’s lair to retrieve his treasury. In fact, Az’kerash had taken reassurance in that fact…until now.
His—obfuscation—of the truth regarding his ability to cure Erin Solstice had been the root of it, Az’kerash could see in the clarity of death. However, the issue had snowballed into a far greater problem without him knowing.
The Necromancer had been content to let young Pisces and his team try, fruitlessly, to raid the Village of the Dead, gambling on them failing.
He had not expected this many adventurers coming for the raid. However, he had been sanguine right up until the second unexpected event occurred: the incredible reanimation field of the Village of Death vanishing without a clue as to why.
“What happened? Is it some kind of—of resonance effect? Did the Demon’s ritual drain it, destabilize the magic?”
The only correlation Az’kerash had was the events around the Summer Solstice; there was no way for him to know what had truly happened. Now, he was worried.
Even with Eldertuin and Elia Arcsinger, he had been confident the raid would fail, breaking on the first layers of undead, who would hold back even an army thrice this size by sheer numbers and regeneration alone.
However. What had been an opportunity to level, however embarrassing to the Horns’ credibility was now turning…dangerous. If the undead did not come back, then the possibility became very real that the raid would begin to succeed. Which meant they’d reach the stronger undead. And the true parts of the Village of the Dead.
Az’kerash had once made it there when he had first come to Izril, by dint of his incredible magical powers in death. He had made it into the heart of the Village of Death…and left. Because he had not been confident enough in his ability to defeat what lay beyond unprepared, alone.
The possibility of the Horns being obliterated now warred with a second possibility. What if they…succeeded?
Az’kerash did not sweat. If he could, though…he inspected the frozen beaver thawing in the summoning circle. A thousand attempts, a thousand failures. He needed more books on this kind of magic. He needed…time. Yet he understood perfectly why the Horns were rushing, into what had been certain doom until this night.
They wanted her back. They were taking on this threat because they were desperate. Because they could not wait.
Too soon. Too hasty. Too reckless. Az’kerash lowered his head.
“Uh oh. I sure hope my friends won’t get into trouble. That’d be—sort of bad. Especially since I uh, I’m alive. Yup, yup.”
His head rose as an unfamiliar female voice spoke. The Necromancer’s head turned.
A young woman walked forwards, inspecting the scrying spell and beaver critically. She shook her head, her light brown hair a bit tangled, her hazel eyes concerned.
“I’d better get my kitchen knife and acid jars. I’m Erin. Erin Solstice. Nice to meet you.”
She stuck out a hand at Az’kerash. The Necromancer watched her with his black eyes, white pupils locked on her face. Erin stared at him, and slowly withdrew the hand.
“Okay, be like that. It’s cool. It’s chill. I’m Erin Solstice. Insert dialogue here. Chess!”
She threw up her arms. Then—jerked. Her head drooped, the arms sagged. Az’kerash sighed.
“…This isn’t going to work.”
He waved, and the zombie shuffled off. Appearance was spot-on, but even with direct control, he couldn’t simulate the personality well enough. He tapped two fingers together, thinking. If it succeeded…
The problem was that he couldn’t even argue whatever the Horns might grab wasn’t worth it. Because if the Helm of Fire was in the Village of the Dead, it was certainly worth his time to collect. One of the great treasures of Drake-kind?
The Necromancer tried to figure out a way to save the Horns, or sabotage them, or fulfill his vow into the night. Come dawn—he watched as they assembled.
They attacked at midday. Then, the Necromancer watched for a different reason. Perril Chandler sat, looking at the woman with arms of silver, the half-Elf, the young [Necromancer], the Antinium alone.
Brave, young heroes. He wanted them to live. He wanted them to succeed.
Somewhere far from here, the Horns of Hammerad had begun their assault on the Village of the Dead. Ceria had sent Selys a [Message] before the attack had begun.
…So had Pisces. That was how she knew. Now, she waited in The Wandering Inn, having told Lyonette, Ilvriss, as many friends as she could name of the Horns’ actions.
Yet they had no idea what was happening. There was nothing on the scrying mirror showing the battle. It was not news until someone decided it was.
Rags listened to the explanation about the scrying mirrors, the arguments—they were looking for a ‘Drassi’. She was still hung up on the magic door, and the fact that it led to Pallass.
The Goblin was…avoiding…one thing by inspecting the inn. In fairness, though, there was a lot to inspect, and a lot of people to see and meet.
For instance, who was this [Mage] who practically spilled onto the ground floor? And the Minotaur? Rags stared at her chest.
…Nope. She was fairly certain the last Minotaur had not been female. Memory played tricks on you, but she was sure she’d have remembered that.
Bezale propped Montressa into a chair, but the [Aegiscaster] was so sloshed she fell out of it. She had not taken being expelled from Wistram well. However, she sobered as she heard about the Horns.
More people were returning, some in a hurry. Palt and Imani trotted in, talking to each other.
“Just once, I’d like a peaceful day. I swear, it’s whenever we plan on something—it’s like the inn knows we’re trying to relax.”
“Stop complaining, Palt. We had a good…three hours. We’ll take off another day.”
They had flowers in their hair. Rags stared, and Selys broke off asking about Drassi long enough to look at them.
“Flower tour. Garland braiding. Where are the Horns? Why aren’t they on television?”
Imani brushed at a scented flower that Palt had put into her hair as he plucked at a long-stemmed flower behind his ear. They both stopped when they saw Rags. She blinked at them.
“Who is that? When did another Goblin arrive?”
Palt exclaimed. Rags snorted.
“I was here first. Who are you?”
“Imani? This is Palt. Er, hello.”
The [Chef] stuck out a hand. Rags inspected it, shook it gently. There went her first handshake with a Human. She raised her eyebrows at Palt. And here was her first Centaur.
“She’s a [Mage]. Why does every second Goblin I meet have magic in them? Flame magic. Uh—Palt. Hello?”
The Centaur trotted over and stuck out a hand. Rags shook it, sniffed. He had a distinct whiff about him that reminded her of a Goblin [Shaman].
Speaking of which…Ulvama was still staring at Rags. She poked Rags; the Goblin slapped her wrist.
“You are the Chieftain of the tribe Badarrow was in? And Snapjaw?”
“Chieftain in the High Passes?”
Rags saw Palt look at her as Imani headed for the kitchen, unsure of what to do, but certain people would want food at some point.
“Somewhere like that.”
“Take me with you.”
Ulvama saw Rags glance around the inn, practically ignoring her. The [Great Chieftain] looked at Ulvama coolly.
“I’ll think about it. Want to give me a name?”
Having thus rendered the [Shaman] speechless for a moment, Rags was well-placed to hear a scream from the kitchen and see Palt gallop to Imani’s rescue.
He nearly ran her over. The [Chef] emerged, backing away from Calescent. Rags scowled at the Goblin [Chef], who was holding up his claws.
“Just looking! Very nice. Very good food. Not enough spices.”
Rags gestured warningly. If Calescent started a fight or got them kicked out…of course he couldn’t resist slipping into the kitchen. Imani leaned against Palt, as Calescent spoke quickly.
“Just want to see! Am [Chef].”
“You’re a [Chef]?”
Palt’s eyes widened. Calescent huffed at him.
“I am [Spice Chef]. Calescent. And you are [Chef] here? Very nice food. Have recipes? Hello.”
Imani blinked as Calescent beamed at her. The Goblin gestured to the kitchen…Rags missed the rest. Because, at last, she saw a familiar face coming down the stairs.
“Is that Rags?”
Bird peered at her as he walked downstairs, holding his bow. Rags vaguely remembered the Antinium. She nodded.
“Hello. You have been gone a while.”
The Antinium sat across from her as Ulvama’s head went from Bird to Rags.
“Mm. I was busy. Where…where is Erin?”
Bird’s head tilted.
“In the [Garden of Sanctuary]. You have not seen her?”
“No. I heard she died.”
“She is not dead. Only frozen.”
“Mm. I heard that too. You…you’re from the chess club. The Antinium who makes birds on chess boards.”
“Yes. You are the small Goblin who killed Skinner.”
Kevin had returned, panting, having not found Drassi. He looked up as Rags nodded.
“The Antinium who died. How many survived? Anyone else?”
“Pawn, Garry, Belgrade, and Anand. But Anand has gone elsewhere, with Klbkch. So has Relc.”
Bird tilted his head back and forth again, and eventually shrugged. He looked at Rags as someone approached.
“Er—your order, Miss.”
A plate of spaghetti and blue fruit juice. Rags looked at Ishkr. She nodded, slowly, and fumbled something out. She put a gold coin down.
“Here. A tip.”
The Gnoll was taken aback, but he didn’t turn down free gold coins. Rags poked at the spaghetti, and instantly smelled a lot more effort and nuance than Erin’s boiled pasta in water. It even had meatballs and a sauce. Bird raised a hand.
“Ishkr. Ishkr. I will have two fried birds, and one boiled bird baby, please. Also, also I would like the oranged juice. I will not tip you in worms this time, I promise.”
Ishkr went to get two chicken wings and a boiled egg. He and Rags sat there for a moment, and eventually Rags looked up.
“Good to see you alive.”
“Yes, thank you. Have a nice day.”
They began eating amiably as Ulvama’s mouth opened and closed. Inside the kitchen, Calescent was watched warily by Palt, but all the Hobgoblin did was rub his hands and chortle as Imani presented him with a cookbook and some of her best creations.
Calescent obligingly handed over his personal spice blend in return. Palt made the mistake of sniffing it; he sneezed into the bag, sending a cloud of spice into his eyes and nose and went blind and deaf for the next ten minutes.
When Drassi arrived, Selys shot to her feet.
“Drassi! The Horns are—”
“I heard. I’m on the job.”
The [Reporter] had been found by Joseph, and she whirled to go back to the door. Joseph went to sit down—she yanked him up.
“Oh no. You’re coming with me. I need reinforcements if we’re doing this.”
“Me? What am I supposed to do?”
“You’re the [Coach]. Kick a soccer ball into Sir Relz’s monocle or something. Just—”
They ran through the door. Rags sat back down, a touch disappointed. She wanted to know about these Humans. Of course, Badarrow had relayed some of the confusing tales about the Humans. Maybe now was the time to…
She found herself going into the basement, then upstairs, leaving her meal half-eaten. Ulvama stayed behind; Mrsha had appeared with a little book of questions for the [Shaman] to answer about Rags.
Rags toured The Wandering Inn, now from floor to floor. She walked up to Bird’s tower, nodding at the fortified sniping vantage. Badarrow had said it was good.
The trapped hallway spoke to her too, although she would have made a pit trap and rock-fall trap too at the very least. Rags even discovered one of the concealed crossbows as the Brothers glanced at her.
“Know a Whet? [Rogue]? Sells stuff?”
She looked at Crimshaw. The man’s eyes widened.
“…I might know the gang of which you’re referring, miss. Big market folks?”
Rags nodded. She showed him the ring, which had a cunning insignia carved into the jade piece. The Brothers looked at each other.
“That would be—the Wharf.”
Rags vaguely knew the word from her lessons, but it sounded different the way they said it. The Brother—Crimshaw—looked at Rags.
“The Wharf isn’t one place. It’s a gang. You want something nice? Odds are, you got it from the Wharf, Miss. If your gang—tribe—is dealing with them, you’re in other territory. Word to the wise? Watch where you step. They work in dark waters.”
The Goblin considered this gravely, and nodded.
“Thanks. Who are you?”
The Brothers looked at each other, then grinned and tipped their hats. Rags walked away, shaking her head. Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings? She would have to ask someone what ‘Serendipitous’ meant. Hatted?
At this point, Rags listened to Montressa talking drunkenly to Bezale.
“I should’ve given them the Shock Orb! They’re mad! Mad! [High Mages] have died trying the Village of Death!”
“If they had a cannon or something—would they make it? Not that I know how, but—how bad is it?”
Kevin had no idea, but he was talking to Montressa and Bezale. Now Rags had a lay of the inn and the people, she was recalling some details.
She didn’t see the Players of Celum, who were famous and had ‘plays’, which Badarrow had recalled to her, but she did know Kevin.
Bicycles. Snapjaw had been agog over them. Rags narrowed her eyes. She looked for Calescent, but he and Imani were tending to the Centaur writhing on the floor. Well, that and Selys watching the news were good cover.
“—a real [Comedian] in our next segment. I understand he’ll be telling jokes about—excuse me?”
Drassi charged into the room. Rags blinked; it had been less than ten minutes since she’d left!
“[Reporter] Drassi, with breaking news! Noass, shove off! You too, Sir Relz! We have an emergency broadcast! Someone get me the Village of the Dead, Horns of Hammerad—[Scrying] spells on Ceria Springwalker! That’s C-E-R-I-A—”
The two Drakes rose to their feet as a Human skidded into the room. Sir Relz objected.
“Drassi, you cannot just interrupt—what news is this?”
“It’s a raid on the Village of the Dead! Dozens of teams, two Named-adventurers! Out!”
It looked like a fight on the scrying orb, as Sir Relz and Noass began to argue and staff behind the scenes rushed forwards. The two [Commentators]—well, Sir Relz was still a [Commentator], Noass had morphed into a [News Anchor]—weren’t objecting to the breaking news story, especially since both knew about the famous location.
They just wanted to be the ones to cover it. The breaking news alert sounded as Selys clasped her claws together, tail swishing across the floor. Noass and Sir Relz wanted to be the two speaking and thus leveling and attracting attention, though. They were forcing Drassi out of the studio—right until Joseph kicked a soccer ball and it bounced across half the staff trying to push Drassi out.
Chaos. Entertainment! The inn was in uproar. Mrsha stared at Drassi, cheering as she took over the desk with Joseph as a surprise co-anchor. Only when someone pulled at one ear did she look around.
“She’s gone. After that Goblin, Rags! Hurry!”
Niers whispered in her ear. He held on as Mrsha sniffed and went up the stairs, after Rags. The Titan was fairly impressed. The little Goblin knew the first rule of taking advantage of distractions: don’t get distracted yourself.
They caught up to Rags in time for Mrsha to realize that Rags was more than a visitor. She was also a pragmatist.
As in, she was going into each room and walking out with objects. She had found Montressa’s room, and had the Shock Orb in her claws and was doing something to it when she saw Mrsha.
The little Gnoll stared at her. Rags waved.
Unconcerned, she went back to…breaking the mage’s artifact? Mrsha craned her neck, outrage warring with curiosity.
Somehow, Rags had found how to open the thing! She was inspecting the insides, muttering, eying the sloshing liquid within without upsetting it, looking at the crystals…she abruptly closed the orb up, rolled it back into the room, and strolled out. Mrsha had no idea what Rags had done, but the small Goblin looked exceedingly pleased with herself.
Then she looked around and found Kevin’s room. Rags pushed the door open—just in time for Mrsha to bar the way. Mrsha scrambled around for pieces of paper in her notecard collection and finally found a disused one.
She held it up accusingly. Rags read it, eyed Mrsha.
“You can’t speak.”
Mrsha shook her head. Then she waved the card at Rags, realizing, belatedly perhaps, that Rags might not be able to read. Rags raised her brows, proving she could.
Mrsha realized what Rags had done! She was stealing the Shock Orb! Oh—not the thing itself. However, Mrsha was smart. She’d seen the evil Drakes and Gnolls that Erin had warred with whenever she made something and realized the Goblin was doing the same thing, only more ambitious.
Rags was stealing the idea of the Shock Orb! She’d memorized what was inside, to try and recreate later. It would be hard, but no one would know she had been here except Mrsha the Thiefcatcher. And here was a [Thief] of…a [Thought Thief]! An ideas-stealer, the worst kind of thief!
The [Great Chieftain] raised one eyebrow as Mrsha translated the angry diatribe to pain-staking scribbling. It was quite good handwriting, albeit in cursive.
“…therefore, I declare you a scurrilous thief of other people’s hard work and invention, a plagiarist and a rogue! I insist you stop at once!”
Rags eyed the writing, then regarded Mrsha’s furious little face. She thought for a moment, then replied.
“Badarrow told me you steal food. The word is…”
She stared up at the ceiling. Snapped her fingers twice.
“…hypocrite. Yes, that.”
So saying, the Goblin pushed past Mrsha, hopped up onto Kevin’s desk, and took one look at his blueprints before checking for the most up-to-date ones, and grabbed them and the gear samples on his desk.
“Interesting. Iron? Steel. But why…ah. It goes together like a puzzle. Clever. So clever!”
Rags sniffed the metal, found a piece of paper, and began making quick-copies of Kevin’s work, as well as a tracing of the gear and its teeth, then the other samples.
Mrsha howled in outrage. She watched as Rags neatly stole everything Kevin had worked so hard on. She grabbed at Rags’ arm once; the Goblin just tossed her off impatiently. Mrsha pounded the floor. This would not stand! This was worse than a food-thief! The ideas-thief had to be stopped. She ran to spread the alarm downstairs. Kevin, Montressa, come quick! Thief! Th—
She was going for the door to raise the alarm when Rags grabbed her tail. Mrsha yelped, and saw Rags’ other claw descend—
“There. Be quiet.”
Rags dumped eight fat, gold coins into Mrsha’s paws. The little Goblin straightened, and decided to raid Bezale’s room next. Did she feel bad about the thefts?
…Not really. She did obligingly dump a pile of gold on Kevin’s desk, like Montressa’s. She needed anything she could use, though, and those gears were fascinating, just like the bikes. She was walking past Mrsha when something pinged off the back of her head, hard.
Mrsha had thrown the gold coin at Rags’ head with all her might. Rags put a claw to the spot, as she slowly rotated. Her crimson eyes flashed and Mrsha backed up a step—then menacingly made two fists. She jabbed as she stood on two legs, like Ryoka had shown her.
Niers watched Mrsha the Boxer shadow-punching the air, daring Rags; he’d already slipped away before she even grabbed Rags the first time. The Goblin couldn’t spot him, but she might be able to if he was too close. He saw Rags’ eyes narrow—then she snorted and turned away.
Mrsha’s jaw dropped as Rags walked out of the room, closing the door behind her. Technically, Rags was the child! Mrsha was several times her age—although Rags looked older, and she was a good bit taller. She grabbed the doorknob, twisted it furiously…
…And rattled the door. It was locked! Rags had somehow shut it from the outside. Mrsha exploded in fury.
The Horns of Hammerad appeared on screen below as Rags emerged from Bezale’s room, having given up trying to copy making scrolls. She had taken a good look at the [Spellscribe]’s supplies, though. Interesting. So that was how you wrote them.
On the scrying mirror, Yvlon raised a sword and pointed as viewers began tuning in. Rags looked down the hallway.
Let’s see. Joseph? Probably not useful. Maybe one of the soccer balls for little Goblins. Can probably figure out how to make them without copying, though. Still need acid jars too. Seed cores, maybe, for blue fruit in the High Passes. Who is ‘Hexel’? Wait—[Architect]. Blueprints! Good to copy.
She looked around for any better options; she knew she might be running out of time if that little Gnoll tattled. Her eyes travelled down the hallway. It stopped as she saw the first door on the left.
The nameplate shone. The door was a bit ajar. Rags looked at the door. Her feet began to take her in that direction—then she backed away. Not yet. Not—she’d rather steal all of Bird’s feathers in front of him than—
Rags saw the flash of light and heard the scampering sound. She whirled—stared at the door open right in front of her in the middle of the hallway, where a wall had been—
Mrsha’s flying kick took her into Rags. The two tumbled across the hallway as the Gnoll exploded into a wild frenzy of punches and kicks.
Headbutt! Bite! Ryoka punch! Relc kick! At first, Rags was just stunned—then Mrsha’s teeth sank into her arm. She growled and punched back. Not hard enough to hurt the little girl, but—
Her fist sank into a wall of fur. Rags stared at the overgrown little Gnoll, who now looked like a sheep, she had so much fur on her.
[Fur of the Fortress]! Mrsha ignored the punches and kicks as she whaled on Rags. She punched the Goblin in the nose. Thief! Mrsha the Vigilante would not allow this! She would—
Rags lifted her up and threw her down the hallway. Mrsha’s eyes went round as she flew. Rags had [Lesser Strength], after all, and she was a warrior. She growled, feeling at the broken skin on her arm—
Mrsha never hit the wall. She flew through into the [Garden of Sanctuary], and rolled. Then she charged towards the door and head-butted Rags from the side.
Rags was stunned again from the teleportation ability of the Garden. This time she began punching Mrsha in earnest. The two rolled across the ground, throwing elbows, punching each other—Mrsha with her fur, Rags with her armor.
The little Gnoll was losing badly, and hadn’t ended up on the ground because Rags had not hit her as hard as she could. However, Mrsha was strong and her Skills meant it was…
…Like watching two kids fight. Niers Astoragon stared at the little fight between the two and walked downstairs to observe the raid on the Village of Death. He didn’t have time for this.
Rags was getting angrier by the second. She couldn’t toss Mrsha off her; the Gnoll kept leaping back on and grappling. And she didn’t want to hurt this brat, but she was going to!
Dead gods, is this what Erin replaced Goblins with? Annoying Gnolls and stupid Centaurs?
Mrsha had Rags in a choke-hold. Rags actually felt her trying to cut off her wind-pipe. Enough was enough. Rags got up, and ran them both into a wall. Mrsha oofed, but she refused to let go, mad with fury. Rags repeated it, smashing both into another wall. She charged a third time, so hard something would break if that stupid little—
They ran into the [Garden of Sanctuary].
Rags and Mrsha fell apart, tumbling to the ground. Rags looked about. What—what—
The garden lay around her. She was in a stone garden section, the stones piled up in cairns, next to a mushroom biome. A pond in the distance; arid ground to her left. And there, on the grass hilltop, bloomed yellow flowers and Sage’s Grass.
High above, on a hill shrouded in mist…Rags’ eyes travelled upwards. She saw a figure raise his head. Numbtongue opened his eyes and looked down at—
Mrsha snarled. The guttural sound made Rags whirl. She saw Mrsha crouching, ready for round two. This time though, she had reinforcements.
Beaver gang. Beaver gang! Four huge Fortress Beavers, heavier than adults, imposing, advanced on Rags. So did an angry bee, who’d dropped the Fraerling off and then came to join the fight. Mrsha punched one paw into the other. They were gonna—
Rags pulled out her crossbow and aimed it at the first Fortress Beaver. With her other hand, she conjured a [Fireball].
The Beavers halted. Mrsha threw her paws up. Rags growled. She aimed over Mrsha’s head to fire—
And her finger failed to pull the trigger. Something—Rags blinked.
The [Fireball] winked out in her claw. The same force that had separated her and Mrsha made her lower the crossbow. Rags stared as the Beavers uncertainly backed up too, unable to charge. She looked at her crossbow. She had the distinct impression that even if she managed to lift it and pull the trigger, the crossbow would explode before it fired.
Mrsha and Rags reconsidered as the presence of this place weighed down on both of them. Mrsha snuffled as she felt at some bruises, despite her thick fur coat. Rags stowed the crossbow, eyed Mrsha, then tossed something on the ground.
“Stop bothering me.”
The healing potion rolled onto the grass. Mrsha eyed it, turned her head up, and glowered at Rags. She padded off to get one of Erin’s potions from the emergency boxes. Rags glowered at the bee buzzing in her face.
You want to fight? Just try it! She waved at Apista, trying to get the Ashfire Bee out of her face. Everything here had Erin’s attitude. Which was to say, zero sense, a hundred percent willingness to scrap.
She was about to follow Mrsha—or figure out how to get back to looting the inn—when she heard a voice. It croaked from disuse, and the figure had stayed here, for all he ate and slept elsewhere. Disbelieving, the voice of a dead Goblin.
Rags turned. Pyrite stood there. P—
No. Who was this Goblin? She recoiled from the far slimmer Goblin, far younger, holding a strange sword made of glass, a guitar strapped to his back. Yet—the Goblin looked at her, and his lips curved upwards, and how he stood, even his voice echoed—
She whispered, Mrsha, the beavers, everything forgotten. The Goldstone Chieftain looked down at her as Mrsha turned. He walked down the hill as Rags ascended. They met among the dead Faerie Flowers, the red, growing Sage’s Grass.
Rags stared at the Goblin, speaking almost accusingly. Pyrite shrugged.
Rags’ voice quivered. She reached out, not wanting to—wanting to touch him. She saw it. She knew it. Him. Yet not him. This body was a vessel.
“The world is strange. Rags. Chieftain. It is good to see you.”
The other Goblin slowly reached out. He touched Rags’ shoulder, blinking.
“You are taller.”
“Pyrite. I’m—I’m sorry.”
The [Great Chieftain]’s voice quivered. She looked up at him, and saw the moment he died. Laughing in the face of the Human [Lord]. Doing what mattered most, as he saw it.
Mrsha stared up at the two Goblins, wrath forgotten. Suddenly, the little female Goblin looked so old. Older than Mrsha. Old, and sad, and…like Relc. Like so many warriors, like Zel. Like…
Pyrite’s claws tightened around hers. His lips moved upwards.
“Why? I won. You lived. And—I got to see you again.”
The grip tightened. For one second, Rags felt the warm grip. She looked into Pyrite’s eyes. Then—the crimson gaze unfocused.
Numbtongue’s grip loosened. He let go, stepped back, shaking his head. He caught himself—looked down.
Rags met the [Goblin Soulbard] for the first time in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Tears in her eyes. She didn’t wipe them away. She looked at Numbtongue, seeing him now.
“Yes. That’s me. You’re…Rags. The Ch…Badarrow’s Chieftain.”
He croaked. He swayed on his feet, surprised and unsurprised. Tired. Somewhere—the Horns were braving death. He didn’t want it.
He had too many ghosts already. They whispered. A ghost of a Goblin Lord sat in his head.
Do I know her? Do I…?
A broken fragment of memory. Sitting with…with…a giant? His brother, and this Goblin? Talking? Arguing?
The ghost of Reiss spoke, but it was broken. Half-lost. Numbtongue heard Shorthilt too, and Pyrite.
Barely remember this Goblin, when Chieftain Garen was alive. Remember Redscar? He serves her? Is she good at fighting?
The whisper of the Goldstone Chieftain.
She looks older. Taller. More tired. I wish I had not died. Who will support her now? She is so young. She will be a better Chieftain than I.
Three ghosts. Too many. He wanted no more, even if the others were unseen. He felt them weighing him down.
“Numbtongue. Badarrow told me about you. Your brother—Rabbiteater—went to Terandria.”
Numbtongue’s eyes closed. He had seen his brother, as Drassi delivered the news. Rags looked at him. She looked around the [Garden of Sanctuary].
“There is much to say, Numbtongue. Many questions. Is—is Pyrite gone?”
“No. Here. Only for a minute a day. A minute, ten seconds.”
Numbtongue touched his breast. Rags looked at him.
“[Soulbard]. I don’t know.”
He shrugged, helplessly. Rags looked at him, searching his features, his thinner frame for…something. Some hint of the dead.
“Is Garen there? Eater of Spears? …Anyone else?”
“No. Just Shorthilt. And Reiss.”
Her eyes went wide. Numbtongue croaked, his voice rasping, unused to water. He saw Mrsha shyly climbing up the hill. She waved at him.
“Reiss is broken. I—no more ghosts. They are all gone.”
The two Goblins were strangers, they realized. Perhaps, for once, true strangers. Neither one was just a Goblin meeting another.
Once, Garen Redfang had sent some of his warriors to kill an [Innkeeper] when Rags had just met the Redfangs. She did not remember who had left. Numbtongue barely recognized her.
Badarrow’s Chieftain. Rags had heard the pause. She didn’t question it, but she did study the other Hobgoblin, seeing how worn he looked. How sad. This was his place, though.
They had history here, the [Bard] and the [Chieftain]. Yet neither had been here while the other was present.
There was so much to say. So much to ask. Rags only had one question, though. She looked at Numbtongue, and saw he carried Pyrite’s last will. He had borne it, and the grief, the loss, the feeling of meeting her walked in him as much as her.
It was time. Rags closed her eyes, then looked at the Hobgoblin [Bard].
“…Do you know where she is?”
Numbtongue’s eyes widened. He turned, looking up, past Rags, and then back at her.
“Yes. Come. This way.”
Mrsha saw Rags follow the line of his vision. She saw Rags’ breath catch, saw her eyes fix on the top of the hill shrouded in mists.
So, the [Chieftain] of the Flooded Waters tribe climbed, following the [Bard]. She had come here, to the first real home she had ever known too late to stop tragedy.
Far too late. She had spoken, shaken hands with a Human, tipped the server, eaten pasta and drunk blue fruit juice at a table, just as she’d dreamed. Reality, though, was nothing like what she had wanted.
Too late. This wasn’t even the same inn. It had changed beyond almost all recognition. Rags walked through statues, stopping, reaching out with trembling fingers. She knew them all.
She walked past her family, her tribe, her friends. Past Reiss, Garen Redfang, footsteps trailing. Stumbling.
The Goblin was too late for it all. However, she stopped, and looked down at the frozen bier. The little Gnoll and Hobgoblin stepped back, leaving her alone.
At last. She realized something.
She was not too late to talk to Erin Solstice. It was just different. That was all.
Rags bowed her head, and began to speak.
An [Innkeeper] sat at the table, eyes wide, doing that shocked expression she did so well. Erin Solstice and surprise, a classic combination.
Of course, there was a chess board between them. A game in progress. Now and then, one of them would move a piece, but neither was concentrating as hard on that as the conversation, each other.
She was probably losing. However, Rags lifted the new invention and eyed it.
“That’s the first thing you say?”
Erin threw up her hands in exasperation. Rags frowned, and prodded at the bread and oil gathering on the plate.
“What is this supposed to be? I always wanted to ask; I never could. You fed me strange things.”
The [Innkeeper] huffed, a bit indignantly.
“Hey! I did my best with a limited budget! You ate it! You liked it as I recall!”
The Goblin raised her eyebrows. She was still shorter than Erin, even with boots, but she was catching up. It had seemed like yesterday that Erin Solstice, the Destroyer, as she was known to the Flooded Waters Goblins, was a giant compared to the non-Hobs.
“What I ate was bugs, mud, and sometimes blue fruit. Everything tastes better.”
“Er…fair. That’s a grilled cheese sandwich, by the way. With ham. It’s good! You’ll like it, go on.”
Erin watched as Rags dutifully took a bite and swallowed. Rags nodded.
Erin trailed off. She looked at Rags. Marveling, studying her.
“You can speak now! And you just tipped Toren a gold coin.”
The skeleton walked past Rags, chattering his jaw at some unspoken grievance—perhaps the tip had been too small. Rags smiled.
Erin spluttered. But eventually, she settled back down.
“I’m…you can speak. Fluently, I mean. When did you learn that?”
“A while ago. I’ve been practicing. To speak to you. How am I doing?”
“Good. I mean—amazing. Not that I didn’t know you were really smart. It’s just…you have a tribe now? You’re all grown up.”
“You haven’t changed.”
Erin laughed. Rags smiled too. She looked at the [Innkeeper] as Erin pulled the chair closer, reaching for a chess piece and…
…She was smiling. Her arms were folded, yet the broken, splintered wood still stuck out, bloody, in her chest. The clothing and skin frozen, a light frost wafting onto the grass. Rags continued after a moment.
“I practiced every day. To speak to you. It was very frustrating. Yet I had to practice because I wanted to explain—I wanted to tell you how I felt. To complain.”
She waited. Yet her dream ended there. Rags sat down.
“I brought you a gift. I was going to bring you a frying pan. Made by Goblins. I thought you could throw it at something. I didn’t expect this.”
The hill was silent. Rags slowly put the pan, balanced for throwing, smaller than most, next to the bier. She saw flowers, unfaded despite the time, a little doll, letters…
She looked at Erin again. Her eyes lingered on the blood.
“I was going to complain. Insult you. You were so—silly. Stupid. Arrogant. After I was nice, I was going to start being mean. Checkmate.”
Erin said nothing. Rags went on.
“I would have said, after you were smiling—‘but I am angry at you.’ And you would have said, ‘huh? Why me?’, or something silly. And I would have explained.”
Her voice didn’t quiver. Rags went on, playing out the ideal conversation.
“How dare you? That is what I would have said. How dare…you. You would not understand—but I would explain. How dare you be kind? After what my Chieftain tried to do to you, after what we tried to do. We tried to kill you. Goblins killed your friend. One tried to attack you in your inn…and after all that, you gave us food. You stopped that Drake, Relc, from killing me. You gave us food, you protected us when no one would—how dare you? That is not what Humans are supposed to do.”
She looked at the frozen young woman in ice and shook her head.
“You don’t understand. Why is that a bad thing? Everyone should do that. Then I say—yes. Yes, but no one does. My life was so simple. Humans were bad. Humans killed or, or did worse. Drakes, Gnolls—everything is my enemy. But you—you were kind. Now, every time I have a sword and see a Human, I wonder—is this Human nice? Is this a person, not a monster? How dare you. You made my life so complicated.”
She looked at the sky, through the hole in the dome. At her armor, her sword by her side.
“I was nothing. I was going to die nothing. Now, I am the [Great Chieftain] of my tribe. Now, I think about right and wrong. I do bad things to survive. I am afraid of killing Humans. Because of you. How dare you?”
Her voice rose.
“How dare you give me a chance? Make me—put me in this place, where I have to think? Think, day, night, worry about right and wrong? Everything was so easy. How dare you do all that? And then…”
She looked at Erin.
“How dare you die? Die? After all you do? Die—you’re not supposed to. You matter too much to them. To us. Why…”
Her voice trembled. Rags trailed off. She closed her eyes, mastered her voice. She breathed in, and out.
“I came here to shout at you. For being a silly Human who doesn’t think about what she does. Except you do. You were kind. Now, here I am. I wanted to say that. Other things, too. Ask you for advice. But you’re frozen now. I don’t have time to talk to ice cubes.”
She stood, brushing off her armor. Rags looked down at the [Innkeeper].
“They’re fighting for you. Your friends. I am going now. I will come back, when you get up. Your friends…if they don’t make it, if they don’t find a way. I will. I came to say that. Next time—you can cry.”
The little Goblin walked down the hill, her back straight. She never looked back. The little frying pan slowly grew colder as it lay against the bier, covering itself with frost.
Rags went to watch the Horns of Hammerad. She hadn’t said nearly all of what she wanted.
Thank you. I’m sorry.
So much more. Nor would she, if she had a hundred years. She didn’t talk to ice.
When Erin Solstice woke up—she’d come back.
It was a promise.
Adventurers ran towards the distant, humble collection of wooden buildings, decayed by age. The first wave broke through and saw what lay beyond.
Undead came to meet them, dying, failing to rise. No one knew why, although some believed false truths, half-truths.
Pisces and Ceria stood together and watched Ksmvr join the second wave. The [Skirmisher] leapt over the roof of a building, drawing an arrow, loosing it, even as he vanished.
The magic was building around them. The [Necromancer] and [Cryomancer] held hands. Ice and death flowed together.
Pisces was concentrating on the spell, breathing hard. Ceria’s breath was more shallow. She felt her muscles tensing. Almost time…
Something rose behind them, and adventurers cried out. A [Scrier] spun, gaping, yet neither half-Elf nor Human looked back. They only had eyes for their team, and the Village. Pisces turned to Ceria.
“Ready? Let’s get the loot, not die, and etcetera?”
He smiled, but his hand tightened on hers. Ceria waited a moment, then she grinned. She let go of Pisces’ hand.
Her wand rose, and she drew the dagger in her other hand. Pisces lifted his rapier.
“Nah. It sounds worse the more I hear it. How about…death before dishonor?”
She turned. The third wave of adventurers parted as the ground shook. The two Horns of Hammerad ran forwards, ahead of it. Ceria shouted—or was it Pisces?
“For the [Innkeeper] of Liscor. For The Wandering Inn!”
They ran into the Village of the Dead, laughing like silly fools.
Author’s Note: I have pre-written this Author’s Note, because as I mentioned above, I will have (hopefully) gotten my scheduled vaccine shot for the horrible thing all around us.
However, I am told it might make me feel like death for 24 hours depending on how I react. I’m not even sure which one it is (I should probably ask), but regardless, I can’t exactly argue about the scheduling. I’ll be taking my break as well, so I can write the next chapter at full power.
That does mean though that I’ll have to cut this chapter short. I imagine this is a problem that…only…affects web serials. Books or other stories could easily work around a day or two of recovery. Well, whatever it is I wrote (I’m only 4k in right now), is what you get. Apologies, but that’s life for you.
…There is no metaphor I can figure out here. Thanks for reading and see you next chapter! Hopefully, with an energized, or at least, average author.
Horns of Hammerad Sprites by Zelanters!
Sleepy Queen, Relc, and Peppermint Erin by ArtsyNada!
Commission info: https://i.imgur.com/OmNDuK8.jpg
Niers-Automata by QtheBird, commissioned by gunmandude2!